Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Day 56

It didn’t take 100 days to reveal that we didn’t get Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or William Jefferson Clinton, or Harry S. Truman, or even Dwight David Eisenhower. Yesterday, Day 56, when the outrage at the A.I.G. mess boiled over, may well go down as the turning point for the Obama Administration – and not in a good way.

This probably won’t show up in his individual poll numbers for awhile. But below that surface, my gut is that the public has crossed a mental line: Many still like him as a person, but collectively the public no longer trusts him to do this job or to protect our interests. In the asphalt jungle of the political playground, we’ve seen that he has neither the skills nor the courage to stand up to the big bad guys. We’ve seen that he blinks.

Starting last September 15, there have always, and obviously, been two dominant political realities to which the next administration would have to be adequate: the public’s fear, and the public’s anger. Fear was dominant at first. And the intended answer to that was the stimulus package. But anger – serious anger, legitimate anger… and also scary anger – was just waiting to coalesce. And the response to that needed to be to address the perception of a widespread failure of leadership.

On the question of fear – that is, with regard to the stimulus package – the right political move was to take the most extravagant proposal and double it. President Obama needed to reassure Americans – and, given how encumbered the rest of the world is in our economy, to reassure people and governments everywhere – that this ship was not going to sink on his watch, no matter what… that while we all might have to tighten our belts, we as individuals and as families would not be ruined while he was president.

He certainly didn’t get an A on that test. At best he got a B-, arguably lower. But he hasn’t used up all his options there. He can still come back for a second package. He’s been dancing around this, but that dance isn’t done yet.

On the question of anger, though, he has simply flunked. He flunked when he named Tim Geithner and Larry Summers – not because of their intellect, knowledge and skills, which are considerable, but because of their biographies.

When it comes to dealing with Wall St., the new administration needed to convey, in no uncertain terms, that it was going to throw the bums out, that a new sheriff was in town and he was one hard-ass sombitch. Obama needed to appoint a Rudy Giuliani type – somebody who everyone perceived as possessing (a) the expertise to understand the deals and the macroeconomics and the whole global system and (b) a long-held itch to ride herd on these types of people. (In Rudy’s case, of course, it was street criminals. In this case, it was Street criminals.)

This isn’t an issue of the immediate economic crisis. In that, as Tom Friedman (correctly, I believe) argues today (h/t Big Tent Democrat), we will need to accept some unfairness in the pursuit of survival. But politically, those two emotions are both important, and both had to be addressed. At the level of sowing basic trust, there needed to be zero ambiguity about whose side the administration’s economic team was on. That doesn’t mean being anti-business… but it does mean being anti-high-finance. It means supporting the needs of production capital and reining in the Wild West of financial capital. It means installing leaders who would go to bed at night and wake up the next morning thinking about how to make the system fair and sustainable, and who wouldn’t lose a minute of sleep in the intervening hours worrying about whether investment bankers lose their shirts.

It means putting in power people who would do for real what Jon Stewart did symbolically in his takedown of Jim Cramer. Did Cramer deserve to be a symbol of the failure of financial journalism – and journalism in general? No. In fact, there is, to me, an appealing self-mocking irony and honesty about Cramer – and more than a soupcon of hypocrisy and smugness about Stewart. But Stewart’s larger point was correct and important, and if Cramer served as a vehicle to etch that point into the general consciousness, then so be it. (By the way, MSNBC and NBC News – a sink of misogyny, journalistic amateurishness, primetime predator prurience and hypocrisy – most certainly did deserve it.)

Anyway, back to my point, about the public's anger at the broad failure of leadership. I feel that our new president has already failed that test, perhaps irrevocably. And the irony of all this is that we're all now going to have to bail him out. People everywhere – in their neighborhoods, in their businesses, in their volunteer work, in their social networking, in how they run their homes and live their lives – are going to have to become active in making sure the ship doesn’t sink. This next couple of years is going to call on the public to rise to the occasion, since our leaders – all of them – seem incapable of doing so. We’ve got to have Barack Obama’s back, because he doesn’t effectively have ours.

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