The Failed Presidency of Barack Obama
How the president's timid response to the economic crisis failed to capture America's populist outrage
Some presidents have first-rate minds, others have first-rate temperaments. Barack Obama had both. In the first months of Obama's presidency, every appearance he made reinforced the public's admiration. It was an Aaron Sorkin show brought to life, except with likable characters. The Obama family's Portuguese water dog, Rushbo, charmed visitors with his antics and yapping. Rahm Emmanuel amused everyone by graduating from the f-word to the c-word and even beyond. Obama oversaw ambitious and well-received spending on everything from school teachers to solar-powered windmills. And yet 2013 would see the inauguration, once again, of a Republican president.
The Great Recession began in 2008 when Americans abruptly realised that their wealth had vanished. The purchase of billions of massage cushions and ceramic frogs no longer seemed prudent, so everyone decided to try saving and producing instead. But this didn't work very well, since without consumers there could be no producers. So Washington stepped in to fill the void. Since America had no money saved anymore, it borrowed from China, which was eager to sell off a growing backlog of massage cushions and ceramic frogs. Everyone hoped this might restart the old party.
While Obama encouraged vigorous debate among his advisers on most things, economics was different. No one seemed to agree, and no one seemed to speak English. Debates became a combination of solemn jargon and angry epithets - like "neo-Wicksellian", "Hodrick-Prescott filter" and "Austrian". Obama needed a sturdy guide to an unfamiliar field. His choice was Lawrence Summers, whom Obama found to be brilliant, persuasive and even intimidating. If Summers had curious social habits, like screaming at people while eating pizza and falling asleep at odd moments, he at least had a clear answer to everything. Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner tended to reinforce whatever Summers said. Meanwhile, advisers like Paul Volcker had trouble being heard.
Cerebral by nature, Obama favoured Summers, Geithner and other economists who counselled pragmatism over emotionalism on rescuing Wall Street. Fairness was nice, they said, but not at the price of mayhem. "This isn't a morality play," the White House told Washington opinion writers. "This isn't a morality play," Washington opinion writers told the White House. Everyone agreed it wasn't a morality play, except for ordinary Americans, who saw a morality play. They saw that a financial elite - once omnipotent and untouchable - had created its own undoing. They saw that this elite was demanding - begging, cajoling, blackmailing - to be saved, no matter how high the cost or unjust the policy. And they wanted a stern enforcer to open the books and say, if necessary, "Tough sheets".
But Obama preferred stern talk to stern action. Instead of forcing banks to open their books properly, Obama tried to buy them time by getting more money to them, hoping they'd patch things up. Instead of allowing house prices to fall to a level that would allow more people to afford homes, Obama sought to aid banks to keep prices as high as possible. Instead of confronting the biggest malefactors, he wound up indulging them. Obama forgot that he'd effectively run as a warrior priest, not a technocrat. But Americans were far more willing to forgive mistaken policies based on firm principles than mediocre policies based on expedience.
The stimulus packages were well intentioned. The goal had been to do the opposite of anything Herbert Hoover did. Since "starve this fevered patient" had been the wisdom of 1930, "force-feed this fevered patient" was the wisdom now. But the patient remained purple - albeit now fat and purple. Some economists advocated the fiscal equivalent of the second word war, forgetting that wartime economics depends on wartime feelings. Americans didn't feel the higher purpose that they'd felt after Pearl Harbour and 9/11. Appeals to shared sacrifice rang hollow when tax dollars were going to AIG. Inflation returned.
Republicans captured the new mood of populism in the nation. Candidates like Mitt Romney, who now spoke with a southern twang and carried a pitchfork, asked why savers should bail out lenders and borrowers, why taxpayers should prop up bank directors and why houses should be expensive instead of affordable. Border control, which Obama had never properly addressed, also began to resonate with ordinary Americans amid the job shortage. The 2012 race looked close, but Mike Huckabee, running on the slogan "God help us", eventually pulled out a persuasive win.
During the next presidency, the economy finally recovered. The recession, deep as it was, had run its course. The new leaders, unfairly, claimed vindication for their policies of tax cuts and deregulation. The public, unfairly, believed them. Obama retired to Chicago, where he returned to teaching constitutional law, and liberalism's brief renewal, the dream of FDR reborn, slipped quietly away.
© 2009 Guardian News and Media Limited