No Time for Poetry

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the New York Times

No Time for Poetry

PRESIDENT Obama did not offer his patented poetry in his Inaugural Address. He did not add to his cache of quotations in Bartlett's. He did not recreate J.F.K.'s inaugural, or Lincoln's second, or F.D.R.'s first. The great orator was mainly at his best when taking shots at Bush and Cheney, who, in black hat and wheelchair, looked like the misbegotten spawn of the evil Mr. Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life" and the Wicked Witch of the West.

Such was the judgment of many Washington drama critics. But there's a reason that this speech was austere, not pretty. Form followed content. Obama wasn't just rebuking the outgoing administration. He was delicately but unmistakably calling out the rest of us who went along for the ride as America swerved into the dangerous place we find ourselves now.

Feckless as it was for Bush to ask Americans to go shopping after 9/11, we all too enthusiastically followed his lead, whether we were wealthy, working-class or in between. We spent a decade feasting on easy money, don't-pay-as-you-go consumerism and a metastasizing celebrity culture. We did so while a supposedly cost-free, off-the-books war, usually out of sight and out of mind, helped break the bank along with our nation's spirit and reputation.

We can't keep blaming 43 for everything, especially now that we don't have him to kick around anymore. On Tuesday the new president pointedly widened his indictment beyond the sins of his predecessor. He spoke of those at the economic pinnacle who embraced greed and irresponsibility as well as the rest of us who collaborated in our "collective failure to make hard choices." He branded as sub-American those who "prefer leisure over work or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame." And he wasn't just asking Paris Hilton "to set aside childish things." As Linda Hirshman astutely pointed out on The New Republic's Web site, even Obama's opening salutation - "My fellow citizens," not "fellow Americans" - invoked the civic responsibilities we've misplaced en masse.

These themes are not new for Obama. They were there back on Feb. 10, 2007, when, on another frigid day, he announced his presidential candidacy in Springfield, Ill. Citing "our mounting debts" and "hard choices," he talked of how "each of us, in our own lives, will have to accept responsibility" and "some measure of sacrifice." His campaign, he said then, "has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship." But the press, convinced that Obama was a sideshow to the inevitable Clinton-Giuliani presidential standoff, didn't parse his words all that carefully, and neither did a public still maxing out on its gluttonous holiday from economic history. However inadvertently, Time magazine had captured the self-indulgent tenor of the times when, weeks earlier, it slapped some reflective Mylar on its cover and declared that the 2006 Person of the Year was "You."

It was in keeping with the unhinged spirit of the boom that three days after Obama's Springfield declaration, a Wall Street baron, Steven Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group, a private equity and hedge fund, celebrated his 60th birthday with some 350 guests in the vast Seventh Regiment Armory on Manhattan's East Side. To appreciate the degree of ostentation and taste, you need only know that Rod Stewart was the headliner, at an estimated cost of $1 million.

That same week the National Association of Realtors told less well-heeled Americans not to fret about its report that median home prices had fallen in 73 metro areas during the final quarter of 2006. "The bottom appears to have already occurred," said one of the N.A.R. economists. Another predicted: "When we get the figures for this spring, I expect to see a discernible improvement in both sales and prices."

We have discerned what happened to those sales and prices ever since. As for the Blackstone Group, it went public four months after its leader's 60th birthday revels. Its shares have since lost 85 percent of their value, and Schwarzman's bash has become a well-worn symbol of our deflated Gilded Age.

Yet the values of the bubble remain entrenched even as Obama takes office. In the upper echelons, we can find fresh examples of greed and irresponsibility daily even without dipping into the growing pool of those money "managers" who spirited victims to Bernie Madoff.

Last week's object lesson was John Thain, the chief executive of Merrill Lynch. He was lionized as a rare Wall Street savior as recently as September, when he helped seal the deal that sped his teetering firm into the safe embrace of Bank of America on the same weekend Lehman Brothers died. Since then we've learned that even as he was laying off Merrill employees by the thousands, he was lobbying (unsuccessfully) for a personal bonus as high as $30 million and spending $1.22 million of company cash on refurbishing his office, an instantly notorious $1,405 trashcan included.

Thain resigned on Thursday. Only then did we learn that he doled out billions in secret, last-minute bonuses to his staff last month, just before Bank of America took over and just before the government ponied up a second bailout to cover Merrill's unexpected $15 billion fourth-quarter loss. So far American taxpayers have spent $45 billion on this mess, and that's only our down payment.

In less lofty precincts of the American economic spectrum, the numbers may be different but the ethos has often been similar. As Wall Street titans grabbed bonuses based on illusory, short-term paper profits, so regular Americans took on all kinds of debt wildly disproportionate to their assets and income. The nearly $1 trillion in unpaid credit-card balances is now on deck to be the next big crash.

This debt-ridden national binge of greed and irresponsibility washed over our culture not just through the Marie Antoinette antics of a Schwarzman and a Thain but in mass forms of conspicuous consumption and entertainment. Cable networks like Bravo, A&E, TLC and HGTV produced an avalanche of creepy programming catering to the decade's housing bubble alone - an orgiastic genre that might be called Subprime Pornography. Some of the series - "Flip This House," "Flip That House," "Sell This House," "My House Is Worth What?" - still play on even as more and more house owners are being flipped into destitute homelessness.

The austerity of Obama's Inaugural Address seemed a tonal corrective to the glitz and the glut. The speech was, as my friend Jack Viertel, a theater producer, put it, "stoic, stern, crafted in slabs of granite, a slimmed-down sinewy thing entirely evolved away from the kind of Pre-Raphaelite style of his earlier oration." Some of the same critics who once accused Obama of sounding too much like a wimpy purveyor of Kumbaya now faulted him for not rebooting those golden oldies of the campaign trail as he took his oath. But he is no longer campaigning, and the moment for stadium cheers has passed.

If we've learned anything since the election, it is this: We have not remotely seen the bottom of this economy, and no one has a silver bullet to arrest the plunge, the hyped brains in the new White House included. Most economists failed to anticipate the disaster, after all, and our tax-challenged incoming Treasury Secretary may prove as evanescent as past saviors du jour. As we applauded Thain in September, we were also desperately trying to convince ourselves that Warren Buffett's $5 billion investment in Goldman Sachs would turn the tide, and that Hank Paulson, as Newsweek wrote in a cover story titled "King Henry," would be the "right man at the right time."

Obama couldn't give us F.D.R.'s first inaugural address because we are not yet where America was in 1933 - in its fourth year of downturn after the crash of '29, with an unemployment rate of 25 percent. But no one knows for sure that we cannot end up there.

On Tuesday, our new president did offer one subtle whiff of the Great Depression. His injunction that "we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off" was a paraphrase of the great songwriter Dorothy Fields, who wrote that lyric for "Swing Time" (1936), arguably the best of the escapist musicals Hollywood churned out to lift the nation's spirits in hard times. But Obama yoked that light-hearted evocation of Astaire and Rogers to a call for sacrifice that was deliberately somber, not radiantly Kennedyesque.

That call included the obligatory salutes to those who serve by parenting, firefighting or helping strangers when natural disaster strikes. But he also cited one less generic example: "workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job." There will be - there must be - far larger sacrifices in that vein yet to come. No one truly listening to the Inaugural Address could doubt that this former community organizer intends to demand plenty from us as we face down what he calls "raging storms."

Last weekend, Bob Woodward wrote an article for The Washington Post listing all the lessons the new president can learn from his predecessor's many blunders. But what have we learned from our huge mistakes during the Bush years? While it's become a Beltway cliché that America's new young president has yet to be tested, it is past time for us to realize that our own test is also about to begin.

Frank Rich

Frank Rich is a staff writer for New York Magazine.  He is the author of many books, including The Great Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina.

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