Monday, March 23, 2009

"Give Obama more time. Then give him hell"

Andrew Sullivan (Sunday London Times):
The former New York City mayor Ed Koch was renowned for strolling about Manhattan when he was in office, grabbing strangers by the lapel and asking, “How am I doing?” This is not exactly Barack Obama’s style – he shimmers around, with a dry but beguiling smile that seems to say, “Don’t touch me” – but others are doing it for him. In an age of 24-hour news channels, millions of blogs and columnists vying to stay above the bloggerrhoeic tide, there is a real urge to make a clear and instant judgment.

I’m not going to do it, because, two months after a president has taken office in the middle of a global financial and economic crisis, as he grapples with two unending wars and a battered constitution, the whole idea of a definitive judgment is loopy. It’s also likely to be wrong. If you had judged the last Bush administration at this point, you would have said it was much better than expected. If you’d judged Bill Clinton in March 1993, you’d have said he was the most incompetent, clueless, chaotic manager the White House had survived. Now look at history’s judgment.

However, there’s a case for feeling that Obama is floundering. He has yet to solve the banking crisis, his Treasury is horrifyingly understaffed and he somehow allowed a bunch of incompetents and thieves at AIG to walk off with massive bonuses under his nose. His stimulus package was too controlled by the Democrats in Congress and is too spread out into 2010 to have a big impact now, when it’s most needed. He is trying to take on too many things at once – from climate change and healthcare reform to engaging Iran and reforming Pakistan. The aura of his campaign has waned as the poetry of insurgency has segued into the deadly and often ungrammatical prose of government. He seemingly still can’t speak without a teleprompter.

However beguiling the idea of a sudden government takeover of several big banks may seem, that’s not to say that a less draconian and more market-friendly approach will fail. We lived through one presidency that gave us total clarity after a massive crisis (9/11) – when we learnt that muddling through has its upside. We should get more details on the banks soon, and no doubt the debate will intensify again. Maybe the approach of the Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, will be deemed too slow. But again, with macro-economics experts at odds, and the crisis of a yet unknown scale and dynamic, a little less rushing to judgment may be in order.

Geithner is a dreadful front man. He is still apparently too jejune to face the Sunday talk-show circuit. As a former president of the Federal Reserve Bank, he may well have been too cosy with the Wall Street bankers who led us off the cliff, and his inability to convey what on earth he is doing in any reassuring way is a drag. That doesn’t mean he lacks a technical grip on what’s going on, and it’s in the nature of his strategy that the results will not be instant. It is easy to pile on until one recalls what most people felt about his predecessor, Hank Paulson. Being the US Treasury secretary is not an easy job right now.

Was the stimulus package too big? Or too small? Nobody knows. Was it too larded with items not geared towards prodding instant spending? Perhaps. When you listen to the Obamaites explain their thinking, they come off as perfectly reasonable. The complex, service-based US economy is not as easy to goose with public works as it was in the 1930s. Some of the alleged excess was put in for fear that $800 billion (£555 billion) would not be enough. Some waste is inevitable when you’re rushing.

On Iraq, Obama has essentially given the neocons everything they want except an eternal occupation. By back-loading troop withdrawals until 2010, Obama also keeps his hand strong in the poker game with Iran. His swift return of the US to the Geneva conventions, and disavowal of the dictatorial presidency favoured by Bush and his vice-president, Dick Cheney, are also clear signals, even as he waits for internal reviews on the more excruciating questions of detention and rendition.

He is right, I think, to keep climate change and healthcare reform on his first-year agenda because the real-world challenges they pose cannot be deferred for much longer. His biggest error, I think, has been a failure to show how he will cut spending on Medicare, the government-run health insurer, and other benefits, even as his aides insist in private that they understand the problem.

The president himself has kept his bond with a great many of his supporters in the country at large. His approval rating has been gently and predictably deflating since January, but it’s still about 60%, which is five points higher than at his election victory. In the past two weeks the polls have shown a marked upswing among those who believe the economy is getting better. Obama’s recent speech to Congress – his semi-state of the union – was a triumph. His opposition remains divided and incoherent. The markets have stabilised a mite.

The Republicans actually spent last week defending the AIG bonuses – a legitimate intellectual position but not exactly a political winner. Last November the percentage of Americans saying the US was on the right track was about 15%. It’s now 37%. And that’s the number to watch.

It is not as inspiring, of course, as the last weeks of the campaign, but Obama’s inaugural speech should have tipped us off to his eschewal of that kind of uplift from now on. And he has a deep strategic advantage that should not be discounted. He inherited the worst downturn in decades – and timing matters. If he fails to relieve the decline, he will be thrown out and will probably deserve it. Only the gloomiest economic depressives, though, believe things won’t be recovering by 2011. And expectations have sunk so low among many Americans that the return of growth may give Obama the kind of lift that saved Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in their first terms. If the rebound is as marked as the downturn was severe, the feelgood factor could kick in with a vengeance. Think of a president who, on facing the voters for reelection, can point to a recovery from the nadir of 2009, thousands of troops returning from Iraq and universal healthcare. Not too shabby a prospect.
Give him time. Then give him hell. That’s the philosophy most Americans understand – and they’d like this new president to succeed. They also know how deep this hole is and don’t expect it to disappear overnight. They won’t suspend judgment, but I suspect they won’t rush to it either. How’s he doing? As Koch might say: come back in a year and we’ll talk.

1 comment:

Pro said...

No one can trust him for a lot of reasons. First, his tax problem. Highly unlikely it was an honest mistake. 2nd, he was a main author of TARP, which has yet to be effective. 3: He lied about the AIG bonuses. He knew, bonuses flew; and now the story changes because of outrage. We don't have honest people. They must have another agenda, otherwise they'd be totally honest.

It is well documented to a point there is not a question they are not telling the truth. Here is why O and G are spewing misinformation!