President Obama's Moonshot Presidency


In President Obama's final State of the Union, he promised that Joe Biden would cure cancer.

No really. That was the president's Big Bold Idea: a new national effort that he framed as a "new moonshot"—with Vice President Biden "in charge of mission control"—the goal of which will be to cure cancer "once and for all." (Granted, Biden probably wouldn't be the one in the lab coat testing cures, but he'd be directing the program and its resources.)

It's a dubious idea—and its indicative of both the problems with Obama's final State of the Union and the larger failures of his presidency.

Curing cancer would be wonderful indeed, but in few ways is it comparable to America's first trip to the moon. Getting to the moon was a massive undertaking, but it was a fundamentally understandable engineering problem: how to get out of earth's gravity well, get into orbit around the moon, put down a lunar lander with a couple of people in it, and then make a return trip with the crew unharmed. It was hard, and required massive human and financial resources, as well as considerable experimentation and innovation, and yet basically straightforward in terms of the challenge it presented.

A similar challenge today would be making a manned trip to Mars. It would be very expensive and time intensive for any government to accomplish, would require a fair amount of engineering experimentation and innovation, and would be somewhat risky for the astronauts making the trip. But we have a pretty good sense of what would be involved, and we can be reasonably certain that we could make it happen given some time and resources.

Curing cancer would be…different. For one thing, cancer isn't monolithic. There are hundreds of types of cancer, and those different cancers affect each individual in different ways. For another thing, we don't even know what the end product would look like, what sort of biological process or technology it might involve. It's as if we're trying to get to the moon, but there are dozens of moons, and we don't know where they are, or what a rocket is.

This is the problem with "moonshot" proposals: Very few things are like going to the moon (except perhaps going to other relatively close places within the solar system), and the methods and lessons of the moon program aren't terribly applicable to other sorts of scientific challenges.

What that means is that means that moonshot proposals almost always turn out to be empty declarations that if we just believe and try and devote ourselves with enough intensity and passion, we can make something happen.

That's a nice thought, but it's more of a hope than a plan. In many ways, though, that's the gist of a lot of what Obama said in his State of the Union address last night—that if only we believe and dedicate ourselves to a cause, we can make it happen.

That sort of determined hopefulness can be comforting, but Obama's own presidency is a study in its limits. It is telling that Obama's final State of the Union returned to many of the themes that defined his first presidential run, in particular the polarization of America's politics, and lamented that the old problems remain—or, in some ways, have grown worse. Fixing America's politics was a kind of moonshot idea, and after seven years, it's clear that Obama has failed. The real problem is that there's no obvious way to fix it, no clear idea of what a fix might look like. But a recognition that some problem is intractable or unsolvable doesn't make for a very stirring State of the Union speech, and so we get visions of moonshots instead.