The seniors at the University of Miami watched the 44th president's inauguration with the tempered hope that comes with the wisdom of age.
These weren't 20-something students facing a new world of promise with a new president in the White House. These were senior citizens, many of them children during World War II, a few who fought in World War II, all of them committed to lifelong learning.
And their biggest fear – at least, the one expressed most by several at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UM – is whether President Barack Obama's fix will amount to runaway inflation and even fewer jobs and retirement earnings should the federal government spend a trillion dollars to stimulate the economy.
Let's compare Franklin Roosevelt's presidency to Obama's challenge in the midst of the worst economy since the Great Depression, plus two wars.
Consider that in his first year in office, FDR called a special session to deal with the banking crisis, and 100 days later emerged victorious on virtually everything he sought. A Democrat-controlled Congress revamped the banking system so that banks could open again; cut salaries across the board for public employees (it bought FDR credibility with conservatives); set up price supports for crops; opened up homeownership by offering 30-year mortgages at low interest rates; established the Civilian Conservation Corps, which created three million jobs; got rid of the gold standard so that trade would flow overseas; and set a minimum wage.
Can Obama deliver such an audacious agenda?
It's not 1933. FDR had the luxury of a willing Congress and a passive press. I know, I know. You might think Obama enjoys these same perks, but this is a 24/7 world.
People don't sit around today to listen to a fireside chat from the president or read a newspaper at leisure. They tweet and blog and have a gazillion news channels to give them information and analysis, often conflicting and agitated. Citizens can e-mail en masse to members of Congress and demand a stop to whatever is in the works. And they do, as happened with immigration reform proposed by former President George W. Bush.
In his somber style, Obama said the economy "calls for action, bold and swift."
"What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them – that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply," he said. "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works – whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end."
Call me a cynic, but I can't imagine that this Congress, which is even less popular than Bush, will cut government workers' pay or make their Cadillac healthcare plans comparable to that of the average non-government worker lucky enough to have insurance.
I agree that the ground has shifted. But overcoming the fear of change in a broken economy will take more than an impressive speechmaker. It will take a leader willing to call his own party on its excesses. Can he?
Many seniors in the classroom smiled as they watched Obama deliver his speech on TV. Having lived through a world war and seen our country become the leader of the free world, they know firsthand what awaits the next generation if Obama does nothing.