In the speech that's since been mined for out-of-context attack ads, President Obama reminded supporters about the American tradition of aiming high. "That's how we created the middle class," he said. "That's how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That's how we invented the Internet. That's how we sent a man to the moon."
I was reminded of Obama's comments when I saw this item from Robert Schlesinger about a House Republican leader who wants the nation to think much smaller.
Don't hold your breath on Congress passing a comprehensive immigration bill any time soon -- Congress just isn't capable right now of tackling anything of that scope, according to House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy.
McCarthy, a lawmaker from California, was speaking to reporters at the regular press breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. Asked about the chances of Congress passing an immigration bill, he immediately said that anything passed would require bipartisan support and allowed that the issue "is a big challenge for both parties and a big challenge for the nation as a whole."
But then he took a rhetorical step back. "If you take that issue away and you look at Congress as a whole, I'm not sure that Congress regardless of the issue can take big massive bills because I don't believe ... the American people like big massive bills," he said.
I won't claim to know "the American people like" when it comes to legislative ambition -- though there's ample evidence voters like the idea of a comprehensive immigration reform bill -- but what's unsatisfying about McCarthy's perspective is its restraint. Policymakers shouldn't even try to tackle major problems, he says, "regardless of the issue," because Congress just isn't up to the task.
Schlesinger added lawmakers fail to address issues like immigration, not because of "voter antipathy toward big solutions," but because of "partisan recalcitrance." He went to scold McCarthy for a "'we can't do big things' attitude."
It's an important point. The passive vision McCarthy espouses -- legislative baby steps, nibbling around the edges of major national challenges -- is underwhelming because our traditions point in the opposite direction.
"When you are this close to Hoover Dam, it makes you realize how small a human is in relation to this as a human project. You can't be the guy who builds this. You can't be the town who builds this. You can't even be the state who builds this. You have to be the country that builds something like this. This is a national project. This is a project of national significance. We've got those projects on the menu right now. And we've got to figure out whether or not we are still a country that can think this big."
It's against this backdrop that the House Majority Whip appears eager to answer the question: we're no longer a country that can think big.