Engines from the Union Pacific and Central Pacific meet at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869.
Great nations, great peoples, and great presidents can accomplish great things once the decision to do so is made. The building of the Transcontinental Railroad, completed on May 10, 1869, and the landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon on July 20, 1969, are just two examples of such great accomplishments from American history. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act on July 1, 1862, authorizing land grants and government bonds, which amounted to $32,000 (in 1860s terms) per mile of track laid. The rail lines built by the Central Pacific and Union Pacific began a race from Sacramento, California, and Omaha, Nebraska, and linked up at Promontory Summit, Utah, in an image immortalized in the following photograph. Keep in mind that Lincoln planned for his nation’s future even while in the midst of the bloody American Civil War. Prior to the transcontinental railroad a trip across the continent to the western states took six months, an arduous journey across rivers, deserts, and mountains.
Apollo 11’s moon landing took shape in President John F. Kennedy’s speech, “Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs,” delivered on May 25, 1961. In this speech before a joint session of Congress, Kennedy stated the United States’ goal to “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” by the end of the decade. The Apollo program was cast as a challenge to American strength and convictions and the cornerstone of its defense against tyranny, aggression, and injustice the world over. In the backdrop was the space race against the Soviets, who were perceived to be democracy’s greatest threat. Winning the space race meant no less than winning the ideological, and potential real war, against communism. Lofty goals indeed!
On April 18, 2014, President Barack Obama delayed the decision on the Keystone XL Pipeline once again and is unlikely to take it up for further review until after the November elections. For those unfamiliar with the XL Pipeline, it is in its simplest form a 36-inch-diameter pipeline to run 1,179 miles and transport crude oil from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries. It at once strengthens American energy and economic security. The United States continues to struggle with the aftermath of the Great Recession, with 47 million Americans on food stamps and the labor participation rate at its lowest level since 1978. A project that creates thousands of new jobs and injects billions of dollars into the economy is a national priority. And as we see from the recent Ukrainian crisis and the potential for energy disruptions in Western Europe, domestic energy production, especially in association with a close ally like Canada, is essential for national security.
One harrowing fact is that two of America’s greatest and most challenging past achievements—the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad and landing a man on the moon—took approximately eight years or less to succeed. President Obama has now taken more than five years just to make a decision about a project of critical national importance! Historians spend much time analyzing a president’s record and leadership style. Reagan is described as the Great Communicator and Truman as “Give ’em hell, Harry!” Will Obama be remembered as the Great Ditherer? To dither, according to Merriam-Webster, is to delay taking action because you are not sure about what to do. Some related words are haw, hem, dally, falter, and hesitate. Another related word is shilly-shally, first recorded in 1734. It also works and is more fun to say. Again, according to Merriam-Webster, shilly-shally is to take a long time to do or decide something. So, five years and counting just to make decision on the XL Pipeline. Yes, the current American administration is shilly-shallying through history.