Voices
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Phasing out sacrifice

It's too early to reduce the price for change

Issue: "The Obama era," Feb. 14, 2009

Like every other smart merchandiser in this bewildering climate, President Barack Obama is lowering his prices. Before he took office, price tags everywhere announced that nothing less than "sacrifice" would be required of those who would buy into his policies and programs. Now you can look around the store and see that mere "responsibility" will do.

If it's really what the new president has in mind, what we're watching is a strange new kind of bait-and-switch. It's like arriving at the store looking for something of great significance-and being ready to pay a premium price-but being told, "Sorry, we're all out. There's none of that available. But we do have an ample supply of this cheap substitute."

I was born just four months before Pearl Harbor, so I have no personal recollection of the sacrifices U.S. citizens made to help achieve victory in World War II. I heard my parents talk about how gas and tires were rationed-but that's all; I never experienced it myself. And now for two full generations, we Americans still haven't paid much in the form of societal sacrifice for the freedom and prosperity we enjoy. (Yes, I'm mindful of those families who have lost sons and daughters in our various wars, or whose children have suffered grievous and life-changing wounds. But I'm talking here of sacrifice that we all bear-society-wide sacrifice that is real and noticeable and at least a little uncomfortable.)

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In between World War II and the present scene have been Vietnam, the Cold War, Afghanistan, and Iraq-and in all of those contexts we've heard debates about whether we could afford "guns and butter" at the same time. Were we wealthy enough, folks asked, to take on an enormously costly societal assignment-and still enjoy our luxuries along the way?

John F. "Ask-not-what-your-country-can-do-for-you" Kennedy hinted at a price hike but wasn't in office long enough to show follow-through. Lyndon Johnson's policies implicitly taught us that yes, we could wage an expensive war in Vietnam without resorting to World War II-type rationing. And Ronald Reagan, making the same basic argument when he told the Soviet Union that the U.S. economy was better prepared than theirs to win an arms race, enjoyed the judgment of actual history: He won the war and left the country more prosperous than he found it.

George W. Bush was not so blessed. History, from a slightly longer perspective, may well record that he did the right thing in waging a war to overthrow Saddam Hussein and send a tough message to other terrorists. But even many who agreed with that commitment have said, from the beginning, that Bush should also have called the nation's people to a special commitment-and even sacrifice-to shape the context of the war effort.

It's too late now, of course, to know whether such a commitment half a dozen years ago and such an exercise in the years since might have galvanized the nation. I tend to think such a call would have helped both the nation and Bush. People tend to stay loyal to that which they are most heavily invested in.

But the flip side of the issue is that it takes bold leadership to tell people it's time for sacrifice. Spelling out the real-life details of such sacrifice is a terrifying test of presidential mettle. And that's right where Obama finds himself now during the early days of his presidency. It was one thing for him to talk about "sacrifice" during months of campaigning-which the record shows he did hundreds of times. It was one thing to refer to sacrifice repeatedly at the Democratic convention in Denver last August. It was one thing to speak of it several times in Chicago the night he won the election Nov. 4.

Is it significant, then, that "sacrifice" got just two mentions in Obama's inaugural address-and that both times the reference was not to us but to our American ancestors? I don't even know, of course, what specifics Candidate Obama had in mind over the last couple of years when he so regularly suggested "sacrifice" as a worthy theme for the American people. I do worry, though, that this early in the game he would send a message that we can tackle all our current challenges at some reduced price.

If you have a question or comment for Joel Belz, send it to jbelz@worldmag.com.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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