December 19, 2013

Thomas F. Remington is a professor of political science at Emory University. This piece was published in partnership with the Scholars Strategy Network.

On Saturday, China landed a spacecraft on the moon. Beyond a tweet from @NASASolarSystem — “Congratulations, China. Chang’e-3 lands on the moon” — the silence from the U.S. government has been deafening.

It was not always this way. The Soviet Union’s launch of unmanned satellites Sputnik and Sputnik II in October and November of 1957 led to a watershed in the Cold War. While the first decades of the Cold War are known for high tensions between the superpowers that brought an arms race and repeatedly pushed the world to the brink of all-out nuclear war, it was also a time of broad U.S. bipartisan consensus and commitment to investing in infrastructure, education, science and technology, and to fighting social problems such as racial inequality and poverty.

Sparked by the shock of the Sputnik launches, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said the American people should meet the Soviet challenge by improving education, defending civil rights and investing in science. He created a White House office of science and technology led by the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, launched the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, proposed quintupling funding for the National Science Foundation and increasing federal, state and local spending on education.

After Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy invoked Cold War competition to urge America to realize its democratic ideals. In his first inaugural address, Kennedy highlighted the moral imperative of tackling the problem of poverty in the United States as we supported liberty around the world. Calling on Americans to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty,” Kennedy set forth an ambitious agenda to reform our nation here at home and defend our ideals around the world.

During his short time as president, Kennedy repeatedly linked domestic reform to America’s global mission. The U.S. unemployment rate was too high and economic growth too slow, he insisted. To help the poor, Kennedy pushed for improved unemployment compensation and an increase in the minimum wage. He tackled lack of access to health care and the blight of substandard housing for 25 million Americans. He established a national Commission on the Status of Women, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. Kennedy frequently coupled the challenge of the Cold War with the need for progress at home on extending equal civil rights, fighting poverty, improving education and extending health care to the poorest Americans.

After Kennedy’s death, President Lyndon B. Johnson challenged the nation to realize Kennedy’s vision. Johnson used the solemn resolve of a mourning nation to pass a host of social reforms, including Medicare and Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and his poverty agenda. Like Eisenhower and Kennedy before him, Johnson cited the need to provide a more appealing model to the developing world than communism.

The Cold War inspired presidents to defend U.S. ideals in the contest with the Soviet Union by improving the lives of all Americans through sustained public efforts to overcome poverty, inequality and racial injustice. Those presidents were able to move civil rights bills, infrastructure investments and other reforms through a Congress marked by far more bipartisanship and comity then the divided Washington we see today. Our domestic challenges are just as severe today, but without a foreign threat, the bipartisan consensus for domestic reforms is gone.

In 2012, the U.S. poverty rate stood at a decades-long high point of 15 percent. Family incomes are falling, and U.S. income and wealth gaps have reached levels not seen since the 1920s. The richest one percent claim nearly a fifth of all income, even as student performance in the United States has declined to 26th place out of 34 industrialized nations in math, 21st in science and 17th in reading, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. U.S. life expectancy at birth languishes in 26th place among OECD and other major industrialized countries.

Had it not been for the Soviet threat, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson would never have been able to bring Americans together to strengthen our economy, society and democracy. In the post-Cold War world, can President Obama and his successors mobilize the public will to fight social injustice and restore the luster of the American model? It remains to be seen whether the more diffuse threats of a multi-polar world, such as a rising China, will be sufficient to bring Americans together to invest in the country’s future.