Have you ever seen “The Apotheosis of George Washington”? It’s a fresco painted on the ceiling of the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, at the very center of the American republic.
It was painted by Constantino Brumidi in 1865, when the Capitol was being completed at the end of the Civil War. I was reminded of it during the debate at the Reagan Library on Sept. 7, when Rick Perry, now the leading Republican presidential candidate, rejected the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change.
The fresco depicts toga-clad deities surrounding Washington, but he’s the only president there: A full third of the ceiling is devoted to scientists and inventors. Benjamin Franklin, Robert Fulton and Samuel F.B. Morse are featured, with Venus holding a transatlantic telegraph cable, the big infrastructure project of the day. The Rotunda all but shouts that to be anti-science is to be anti-American.
Most presidents have embraced that idea. And most have sought to preside over a period when the U.S. advanced in concrete and measurable ways on the home front. Abraham Lincoln was determined that the 1860s be known for something other than carnage. He insisted on pushing through a series of what were then called “internal improvements” — such as land-grant colleges — that were not directly tied to the war effort.
We tend to associate decades with presidents, even if they served for only part of a decade and the association is a lazy-minded convention (like “the Eisenhower ‘50s”). The anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks offered a chance to look back over the past 10 years. It was an ugly sight. Even with the decade over, there’s no consensus on what to call it. I favor “the oughts” — as in, “It ought to have been different.”
Sept. 11, 2001, is often compared to Dec. 7, 1941. But think of all this nation accomplished between 1941 and 1951 — the crushing of fascism around the world, the desegregation of the armed forces, the creation of the United Nations, the GI Bill to educate the middle class and build the basis for the astonishing prosperity to follow.
The sad truth is that the past decade has been the worst for this country in 100 years.
Century of Progress
In the 1910s, we expanded health and safety standards, established the Federal Reserve, and (unlike today) quickly lifted the limitations on civil liberties enacted during World War I.
In the ‘20s, we pioneered jazz, widespread radio use, motion pictures and the managerial approaches still used by modern business.
In the ‘30s, amid the Great Depression, we built much of the infrastructure we still use — including, most likely, the roads you drove on today and the schools where you dropped off your children.
In the ‘40s, we not only emerged as the preeminent power in the world but also helped develop radar, antibiotics and nuclear energy.
In the ‘50s, we built the interstate highway system, cured polio and used the government to help people own their own homes.
In the ‘60s, we went to the moon, made great strides toward racial equality, directed federal money toward better education and opened our borders to many more non-Europeans.
In the ‘70s, we moved toward gender equality, began dramatic advances in medical research and started cleaning up the environment.
In the ‘80s, we strengthened Social Security, reformed the tax code and fixed the immigration system (at least temporarily), while peacefully winding down the Cold War.
In the ‘90s, we balanced the budget, reformed welfare and watched the Internet — a government creation — transform our world.
The Lost Decade
And the past 10 years? Shoes off in the airport. Bruising unemployment. Slipping from first to 12th in college graduation. Even classic loser decades, like the 1930s and 1970s, were more productive than the oughts.
Census figures released this week show that for the first time since the Great Depression median household income, adjusted for inflation, hasn’t risen at all in over a decade. More than 15 percent of Americans now live in poverty, and the income of the bottom 10th has fallen alarmingly. Even the suburban poverty rate is at its highest since the 1960s. The economist Lawrence Katz of Harvard University is now calling it the “Lost Decade.”
Beyond No Child Left Behind (now in the process of being dismantled), President George W. Bush did nothing on the fundamentals. No rebuilding the country, no tax reform (unless you include monster tax cuts), no entitlement reform (unless you include adding a new prescription-drug benefit without paying for it), no energy independence, no immigration reform, no long- term deficit reduction (to the contrary, moving the budget from surplus to deep deficits).
In short, nothing to show for his time in office beyond doing good work on AIDS internationally and the wholly defensive claim that we were not attacked a second time on his watch. Besides Apple products and social networking, what new and exciting developments did the decade give us?
If Obama loses the next election, he won’t be associated with a decade (like George H.W. Bush). If he wins, and serves until 2017, the next 10 years will probably be seen as the Obama decade. Only then will we know if history will view him as something more than the first black U.S. president.
If Perry is elected, he has pledged to “make Washington, D.C., as inconsequential in your life as I can.” He and his supporters may have forgotten that it was Washington that helped build everything from the interstate to the Internet.
Whoever wins, we’ll know within a few years where we stand on redeeming the message of that fresco — the one we can only see inside the Capitol when we look up.
(Jonathan Alter, a Bloomberg View columnist, is the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” The opinions expressed are his own.)