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At the beginning of his fifth State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama summoned the specter of John F. Kennedy.
In JFK's 1962 State of the Union speech, Obama recalled, the late president reminded members of Congress "that the Constitution makes us not rivals for power but partners for progress."
In some ways, echoing Kennedy's words was an odd choice for Obama to make.
Kennedy's tragic early death made him an American icon - and obscured from memory some of the central facts of his presidency. He could get little of his legislative package through Congress and he presided over an America that was angry and rancorous - as his devastating date with destiny in Dallas soon demonstrated.
Even then, observers complained about the gridlock in Washington.
In other ways, though, Obama's decision to conjure up JFK's ghost made perfect sense.
What Obama did in this 2013 version of the State of the Union was translate into prose what JFK had presented in a kind of poetry in his famed inaugural address.
Where Kennedy summoned Americans "to bear any burden, pay any price," Obama asked that all citizens do "their fair share." Where JFK urged Americans to "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," Obama called on his fellow citizens to "fix it first."
Regardless of whether the rhetoric soared or simply plodded, both men - both presidents - used their speeches to make cases for duty to country and government's ability to help Americans and foster economic growth.
The fact that Obama's address poked along in the fashion that it did is a reflection of the changes in America and its political landscape over the past 50 years. On both the left and the right, strident assertions that the individual's rights and autonomy trump the community's or even the nation's interest now are the norm.
Kennedy could issue a clarion call to the generation that had won World War II and assumed the responsibility of defending the Free World because he was speaking to men and women trained by history and circumstance to answer calls to duty. They were the "ask not" generation - an attitude that led them into some serious misadventures around the globe.
Obama cannot sound a JFK-like bugle call to duty in part because those misadventures helped to create a distrust of government. We now often - perhaps too often - lack faith in our leaders' motives and character. "Ask not" has become "don't ask."
The only moment that Obama's speech achieved lift-off was near the end, when he pointed to victims of gun violence - and their families - in attendance. He demanded that Congress vote on new gun laws.
"The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence - they deserve a simple vote," the president said.
The reaction to Obama's appeal demonstrated how much the political dynamics of today resemble the impasses of Kennedy's era.
During most of Obama's speech, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, sat uncomfortably still, looking as if he wished he'd scheduled something more pleasant - maybe a root canal or a colonoscopy - for that hour.
After the speech, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., delivered the Republican response. Rubio's remarks most likely will be remembered primarily for his odd facial tics and his sudden mid-speech lurch for a drink of water - the poor man looked positively parched - but the rhetoric summoned up the clichés of Eisenhower-era Republicanism. Government is always bad, but even though we Republicans don't like it, we're not going to hurt Medicare or Social Security.
By evening's end, we'd heard one speech that echoed the political rhetoric of the early 1960s followed by one that sounded the talking points of the 1950s.
America may be hurtling headlong into a new era of increased global competition, an increasingly stressed infrastructure, growing divisions of class and wealth and partisan animosity grown to toxic levels, but our leaders seem to be trapped in the past.
Like the old movie, they want to go back to the future.
John Krull is director of Franklin College's Pulliam School of Journalism, host of "No Limits" WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and executive editor of The Statehouse File, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.