Barack Obama campaigned on the idea that hope can triumph. But as president his message has been that hope can't triumph without redemption.
"Yes, we can" has become "Yes, we could."
Ten times in his Feb. 18 speech in Mesa, Ariz., unveiling his mortgage-relief plan, he invoked responsibility. He talked of "responsible" homeowners unable to refinance through no fault of their own, dishonest lenders who acted "irresponsibly," and a government taking "responsibility" for setting clear rules and enforcing them.
Politically, such talk helps to dampen the sky-high expectations that surrounded Mr. Obama's election. But his rhetoric has moved beyond political necessity.
At a time when most people yearn for a return to the 1990s or mid-2000s, Obama is outlining something quite different for the new economy.
In Mesa, he said: "If we move forward with purpose and resolve – with a deepened appreciation for how fundamental the American Dream is and how fragile it can be when we fail in our collective responsibilities [AARRGH, that word again!] – then I am confident we will overcome this crisis and once again secure that dream for ourselves and for generations to come."
This is the language of America as community, of the triumph of fair play and honesty, of "a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and a little lookin' out for the other fella, too," to quote the movie character Jefferson Smith in the 1939 Frank Capra classic "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." (Click here for that speech.)
This vision of the new economy is old and mythic, more Depression-era (ironically) than anything we have heard in decades. It suggests that a great economic crisis can make us a better people.