Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Die Is Cast

Anyone who has worked in a corporation and has at least a bit of gray in their hair knows the feeling. You've worked your butt off for years. You've paid your dues. You've done a good job. Then that big promotion or plum assignment comes up, and you just know it's rightfully yours.

But then some flashy young guy gets it. He doesn't have half your experience and hasn't actually accomplished anything to speak of. But he looks good and sounds good and the powers that be go with him because he has them dazzled.

This is certainly how Hillary Clinton felt during the primaries. (You don't have to be a woman to know how this feels, but it probably helps.) And it is certainly how John McCain must have felt in November. But that's how it goes. The presidency isn't some reward for longevity or good work or public service or even being a hero. This is a democracy, and the president is whoever the American people want at that particular moment, which comes every four years. And in November they chose Barack Obama.

With Obama's inauguration, we are at an extraordinary moment. We have elected a president who is relatively young, as presidents go, and who has an astonishingly limited amount of government service under his belt. Not only has he no previous executive experience, but he has precious little legislative experience, especially at the federal level. On the positive side, he brings much less political baggage with him than any other president in modern times. That gives him extremely wide latitude to take bold new initiatives and to build different kinds of coalitions than we have seen for a while. On the negative side, the U.S. has less idea what to concretely expect from its leader than at any time in memory. Obama has no real track record to tell us realistically what he will do. We have his campaign position and public statements, but they tend to range from the vague to the self-contradictory. In his campaign, he played to the left, but that was what he had to do to get elected. Since the election, he has sounded more pragmatic, almost like a technocrat. He has even made overtures to conservatives. The fact is, we still don't know what Obama really believes. Not in the way that we knew what Ronald Reagan, for example, really believed when he became president. In essence, we have thrown the dice and hoped for the best in a very risky period in terms of the economy and world events.

It's still early days, but the first indications are not particularly encouraging. I'm not talking about the withdrawal of cabinet nominees like Tom Daschle and Nancy Killefer or even backsliding on promises to be more transparent than previous administrations. All that is pretty much par for the course for any new administration.

I'm talking about the so-called stimulus bill passed by the House. There are economic arguments for stimulating the economy by pumping money into the hands of consumers and/or business via tax rebates or tax cuts. But only Washington politicians can be brazen enough to justify a 30 percent increase in federal spending on pet projects and call it a stimulus. The bill is so bad that not a single Republican felt uncomfortable about opposing it, even though it meant going against a popular president and risking getting blamed for a worsening economy. Obama called for bi-partisanship, but the bi-partisanship he got was in opposition to, not in favor of, the bill since even some Democrats couldn't stomach it. Meanwhile, governments in Europe that had been toasting the new president went into a panic when they realized that the bill includes protectionist provisions, directly threatening European and other economies. The fact is that, in the long run, protectionism is bad for the American economy as well.

What concerns me is not that the bill represents Obama's political and economic philosophy but that, so far, there is no evidence that he actually has one. He has ceded free rein to the House Democrats on this critical piece of legislation. This is leadership? Despite the blowback, however, Obama seems serene, saying he is confident that the bill will be improved in the Senate and in conference. Let's hope he is right and that he is crazy like a fox and will end up getting something out that will actually help the economy and not make it worse. But, at this point, that is only a hope.

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