The US economy is in the doldrums, unemployment is stubbornly high and Social Security, the New Deal-era safety net for older Americans, is running out of money. It is 1981.
To salvage the popular programme, President Ronald Reagan forms a commission. At its head is Alan Greenspan, the man he later makes chairman of the US Federal Reserve.
The commission procrastinates but then, in a model of backroom bipartisanship that is hard to imagine today, a “gang of nine” does a deal. Payroll taxes go up; over time, so does the Social Security retirement age, from 65 to 67.
But as Mr Greenspan recalls today, from his office overlooking Connecticut Avenue in downtown Washington, the fix was not forever. “Funding over a 75-year period was all that the political system would take. What that does is create a very large deficit in the 76th year and forward.”
It did not emulate the brevity of Abraham Lincoln, who squeezed his second inaugural address into 701 words (yes, considerably shorter than this piece). But at triple Lincoln’s length, Barack Obama was certainly briefer than his own more prolix self in 2009. He was also more directly political. Then Steven Spielberg famously said that it would be impossible to stage the scene for a film. With a crowd of up to 800,000 this time rather than 1.8m, Mr Spielberg might still struggle. But it was a very different occasion.
With the theme “Faith in America’s future”, Mr Obama was always going to give it a lofty frame – the first requirement of any inaugural speech. He was tee-ed up by an unabashedly exceptionalist Chuck Schumer, the New York senator and master of ceremonies, whose words reminded us that the US is in reality a constitutional monarchy as opposed to a crowned republic (such as Canada). The “innate majesty” of US inaugurations “never fails to make our hearts beat faster”, Mr Schumer said.