The Last Baby Boomer?

I had breakfast today at the usual table in the usual restaurant with a very smart journalist who works for a large salmon colored newspaper. We both had oatmeal because a guy just can’t get enough soluble fiber.  My friend said that at the moment the most over-used term in Washington is "defining moment." Of ...

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577392_89404801_Rothkopf_revised2.jpg

I had breakfast today at the usual table in the usual restaurant with a very smart journalist who works for a large salmon colored newspaper. We both had oatmeal because a guy just can't get enough soluble fiber. 

My friend said that at the moment the most over-used term in Washington is "defining moment." Of course, the reason the phrase-turning classes keep returning to this particular phrase is that they are cockeyed optimists. They keep believing that such a moment will happen and they will begin to understand who Barack Obama is. They don't want to have to grapple with the notion that he has already defined himself. They keep hoping that he is really will emerge from the chrysalis of his learning curve months in the presidency as the glorious butterfly of change everyone hoped he would be in the first place. The fact that there is precious little evidence this is likely to happen doesn't daunt them. They'll stick to their s.o.p. of doing the analysis they want and hoping that reality catches up to them sooner or later.

Personally, I'm getting a little worried. (Actually, I'm kind of perennially worried. Not as bad as my ex-wife who actually believed she was going to be hit by Skylab. But able to nonetheless find the cloud around every silver lining.) For months I have been going around saying this is a new generation of leadership, noting that Obama entered high school after Vietnam and his practice as a lawyer after the fall of the wall (that's the Berlin Wall, for you kids who don't remember). But so far, on key issues he has been acting like he isn't the first of a new breed but that he is actually the last baby boomer.

I had breakfast today at the usual table in the usual restaurant with a very smart journalist who works for a large salmon colored newspaper. We both had oatmeal because a guy just can’t get enough soluble fiber. 

My friend said that at the moment the most over-used term in Washington is "defining moment." Of course, the reason the phrase-turning classes keep returning to this particular phrase is that they are cockeyed optimists. They keep believing that such a moment will happen and they will begin to understand who Barack Obama is. They don’t want to have to grapple with the notion that he has already defined himself. They keep hoping that he is really will emerge from the chrysalis of his learning curve months in the presidency as the glorious butterfly of change everyone hoped he would be in the first place. The fact that there is precious little evidence this is likely to happen doesn’t daunt them. They’ll stick to their s.o.p. of doing the analysis they want and hoping that reality catches up to them sooner or later.

Personally, I’m getting a little worried. (Actually, I’m kind of perennially worried. Not as bad as my ex-wife who actually believed she was going to be hit by Skylab. But able to nonetheless find the cloud around every silver lining.) For months I have been going around saying this is a new generation of leadership, noting that Obama entered high school after Vietnam and his practice as a lawyer after the fall of the wall (that’s the Berlin Wall, for you kids who don’t remember). But so far, on key issues he has been acting like he isn’t the first of a new breed but that he is actually the last baby boomer.

This may be due to the lack of creativity of some on his team who have ignored Rahm Emmanuel’s famous admonition not to let a crisis go to waste and who have failed to carpe the damn diem to make this a transformational moment with regard to finance or health care. (The jury is out on foreign policy and climate.) But whatever the case, as recent polls have shown, the "yes we can" of the campaign seems have just been the prefix to "yes we can keep doing business as usual."

Still, all is not lost. Every day new opportunities arise for the President to have that defining moment and to demonstrate to critics that something resoundingly new is happening.

I was thinking of this last night at the big annual dinner for Conservation International, a terrific organization that has done the math and realized that when it comes to planets we have exactly one. Absent spares, they are focused on doing what we can to keep this one habitable. That was reason enough to show up. But the food was good and it was a great group of people. 

(It attracted a much better bunch than Michele Bachmann’s latest effort to teabag America, the anti-health care rally that reputable news organizations said had 10,000 attendees and that Fox News said had 40,000. It says something about Bachmann — no relation to 70s Canadian rockers Bachman Turner Overdrive except to the extent that we might all hope she soon joins them in obscurity –that at an event co-organized by a Republican Rep. named Steven King and bringing together some of America’s most deranged wingnuts that she was the scariest person in attendance.)

Sitting not 20 feet from me at the CI event were Energy Secretary Steven Chu, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, actor Harrison Ford and many, many vegetarians. Chu gave the main address and by any traditional Washington standards the remarks were remarkable. On the one hand the speech lacked any effort at soaring rhetoric or even structure for that matter. His delivery was uninspired. The talk came with 30 or 40 often very complex slides. In other words, we got remarks from a Nobel Prize winning scientist who was interested in facts and thoughtful analysis. He was the un-orator and a welcome, refreshing and even urgently needed alternative to the usual DC gloss. The point: the climate crisis is real and that the President is committed to addressing it and that if we harness creativity, science and engineering we can solve the problem. Oh … and if we don’t the Chinese will get there ahead of us and they will be the be neficiaries of the first big tech boom of the 21st Century. 

Listening you thought, "that’s what I’m talkin’ about!" But then reality sank in when I saw Rep. Edward Markey, co-author of the House climate bill, walk by and all the prognostications of a weak deal on the heels of a cobbled-together face-saver in Copenhagen came rushing into my brain. This is the great issue of our time (you can debate the trajectory of global warming all you want…you can’t debate what’s happening to the polar regions or the glaciers of the Himalayas). And unless something changes we are going to fumble the ball forward in the hopes that we can pick it up at some point in the future.

Obama could change that. As Al Gore said today, he could go to Copenhagen. Indeed, he should go there. If he could go for the Chicago Olympics … supporting what’s little more than a global marketing scam … then presumably he can go to show that something like saving the planet is worth the trip and even the risk that things won’t all work out so well. Two-thirds of Americans under 30 see this as a critical issue. Only the boomers and older are undecided. The president needs to pick a team. Is he with the next generation or the last one?

Same is true with China and his upcoming Asia trip. On this front, I frankly think he is trending in the right direction. I think that Obama, to paraphrase foreign policy expert Elle Woods, recognizes that Asia is the new Europe. Furthermore, after decades of pundits speculating about this, I think he can make this real with a productive trip to the region this month. 

The key: the turnabout is fair play meeting of the year. After 10 months at least significantly defined by how the Obama Administration is dealing with the banking community, now the president has to go meet with his banker. They have a full agenda: a deal on climate, collaboration on Iran and North Korea, the coordinated soft-landings of our national currencies. Pay more than lip service to the importance of the relationships … produce real progress on these fronts … because actions really do speak louder than words … and he passes another critical test when it comes to proving this administration is about something new.

Two final related points:

At a meeting I was at with a bunch of big institutional investors in Chicago this week, the scenario for world markets that many were most concerned about was that of a failed Treasury auction … something they felt was more plausible now than at any time in memory. The aftershocks for the global economy would be pretty darn grim. Avoiding this nightmare is perhaps job one in the U.S.-China relationship at the moment.

And on the climate issue … as on health care … I am starting to become embarrassed to call myself a centrist. The folks in the middle are among the greatest obstacles to the kind of reform that is really critical to demonstrating it is no longer business as usual in Washington. (After the entire Republican Party, that is.) My only consolation comes from the fact that most of these people are not what I consider to be real centrists.  They are actually "middle-ests", splitting the difference between left and right. True centrists don’t take both sides and divide by two, they use every tool at their disposal to advance the national interest, regardless of what labels might be hurled their way. 

In short, we need courageous, centrist, post-Baby Boom leadership … and absent a defining moment or two in this direction, all the moments that have come before will do the defining. Fortunately, in times like these, potentially defining moments crop up with alarming regularity.

Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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