On March 4, 1933, Franklin Roosevelt addressed a crowd of 400,000 at his first inauguration. The past few years had seen a spectacular decline in the nation’s fortunes, born of what he called the “mad chase of evanescent profits.” Banks were failing, savings disappearing, real estate and commodities collapsing. Fascism was rising abroad. In response, Roosevelt pledged “a disciplined attack upon our common problems.” He didn’t get much more specific than that. And, really, he didn’t have to. The people wanted change, in the current vernacular—or, more precisely, they wanted a government that could respond coherently to the profound changes that were already under way.
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Barack Obama assumes the presidency this year amid a similar sense of national crisis, and having made similar promises of change. And, like Roosevelt, he’ll be leading a country very different from the one his predecessor inherited: as the statistics on this map show, change itself is one thing we’ve seen in abundance in the past eight years. Making sense of that upheaval will be the first responsibility of the new administration.
Since 2000, America has changed in small ways, in big ways, and in ways that seem innocent enough now but no doubt herald some radical disruptions to come. Many more people are poor, uninsured, and in prison. Many more are billionaires. The burden of health-care costs has grown heavier, and so have we. We charge more, save less, and play a lot more video games. Even the things that haven’t changed much—like the amount of oil we consume, or the price of cocaine, or the size of our military—reflect not so much stasis as unsustainable trajectories. For Obama, responding to these problems will require breaking deep national addictions—to oil, to etherealized finance, to profligacy of all kinds—and, somehow, easing the tremens along the way. Perhaps, in doing so, he should heed a warning Roosevelt issued on the campaign trail: “Without leadership alert and sensitive to change,” he said, “we are bogged up or lose our way.”
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