The crisis was labeled an economic crisis, but it was really a psychological crisis.
[Obama]’s going to have to fit other issues into the larger narrative of the economy.
Whichever side proves to be right, the sharp, partisan lines over the stimulus bill make it plain that both parties intend to exact a political cost over last week’s votes. And their leaders are looking to history for inspiration as they consider how to maneuver in the weeks and months ahead…
Republicans have made it clear that they intend to try to shift the economic debate toward concern about the federal deficit.
Obama is now completing the three-step jig he planned from the beginning, with his address to Congress tonight focused on the Grand Bargain needed to shore up our economy for the forseeable future.
The first step of this jig was supposed to be easy, nonpartisan, and uncontroversial – a spending and tax cutting bill to stimulate the economy. The second step was supposed to be harder but still nonpartisan – dealing with the mortgage and banking messes. In both cases, Obama has approached these problems as a mechanic trying to figure out what has gone wrong and taking whatever steps are necessary to fix it. Just as a mechanic does not make moral judgments about springs and gears but focuses instead on doing what is necessary to get the machine working again, so Obama approached the economy. Most Americans appreciate this, as polls show that while many dislike the specific measures he has had to take, they approve of the job he is doing. The question was: how to get growth started again – greedy bankers and lying loan applicants and wasteful consumers all are being bailed out – because the problems they have caused are “gumming up the works.” And the consumers at least are being encouraged to continue in their spendthrift ways – at least for now, as Dana Milbank explained:
[Ben Bernanke] even indulged in a bit of economist humor when talking about the paradox of encouraging people to spend even though overspending caused the problem: “Somebody once called this the Augustinian principle, which says something like, ‘Let me be moral, but not quite yet.’ “
The third step is more complicated and politically fraught – as Obama seeks to tackle the third-rail of American politics – Social Security; and at the same time, health care reform; and deficit reduction; and tax reform; and possibly climate change legislation. Obama argues that this economic crisis – and the borrowing to stimulate us out of the economic crisis – have created a “fierce urgency of now” – and that all these issues must be tackled at once.
To protect America’s currency and its borrowing capacity, Mr. Gregg said in an interview, “the world has to be told that we’re going to be fiscally disciplined in the out years.”
Efforts to tame long-run entitlement spending may find more Republican support than Mr. Obama achieved on the stimulus. “He has extremely fertile ground in the Senate,” Mr. Gregg said, crediting the president’s early outreach and “courageous position of saying the can’s been kicked down the road long enough.”
Yet despite the bipartisan consensus that these issues must be tackled, here is where the real disagreements should be. Contra George F. Will who argued constantly that the stimulus bill and banking and mortgage bailouts should be opposed by Republicans and supported by Democrats on based their principles, the initial stimulus and other emergency measures should only have raised principled objections from those with an unflagging belief in the free market – which describes only a minority of Republicans. These measures violate the ideologies of both parties – as big business is bailed out and the market is intervened in. There were issues to be raised as to what the most effective methods of dealing with the crisis were – but to oppose measures wholesale as the Republicans did – indicates a lack of seriousness.
The real debate should come now as we decide the shape of things to come and address the moral and political and long-term issues instead of the emergency measures taken to attempt to stimulate the economy.
The Stanford economist Paul Romer famously said, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” The United States, whatever its flaws, has seldom wasted its crises in the past. On the contrary, it has used them, time and again, to reinvent itself, clearing away the old and making way for the new. Throughout U.S. history, adaptability has been perhaps the best and most quintessential of American attributes. Over the course of the 19th century’s Long Depression, the country remade itself from an agricultural power into an industrial one. After the Great Depression, it discovered a new way of living, working, and producing, which contributed to an unprecedented period of mass prosperity. At critical moments, Americans have always looked forward, not back, and surprised the world with our resilience. Can we do it again?
David Brooks writes with both concern and a carefully measured dose of hope:
[Obama’s] aides are unrolling a rapid string of plans: to create three million jobs, to redesign the health care system, to save the auto industry, to revive the housing industry, to reinvent the energy sector, to revitalize the banks, to reform the schools — and to do it all while cutting the deficit in half.
If ever this kind of domestic revolution were possible, this is the time and these are the people to do it. The crisis demands a large response. The people around Obama are smart and sober. Their plans are bold but seem supple and chastened by a realistic sensibility.
Brooks is still concerned about how this may turn out. As are we all.
With tonight’s speech, Obama will begin to craete his legacy – beyond fixing the problems accrued during Bush’s tenure. He will begin to, at long last, deal with the stability issues raised by the combination of FDR’s New Deal revision of the social contract and Reagan’s counter-revolution, as he sets a fiscally sane course for the future. In the midst of this crisis, if Obama is to be the leader we need him to be, he needs to see the opportunity to re-write the social contract and create a more stable economic, financial, and international system. Tonight is his chance to make that case.
Here’s hope it is not wasted.