Apr 27, 2009
How would you do on a "stress test?" Even as the soundness of banks
is supposedly measured - with many expected to show signs of insolvency
- the whole stress idea demands a broader focus.
How many of the possible 20 million Americans out of work could
pass a stress test with flying colors? How many among the millions of
families facing foreclosure? Or students defaulting on student loans?
What about the reported 31 million maxed out on their credit cards, or
the millions more bombarded with "debt consolidation" commercials
on their cable TV channels at 3 AM when so many anxious people watch
because anxiety keeps them from sleeping?
And now, what about the real threat of a deadly swine flu pandemic? That's something new to get stressed about.
Ours has become a stressed nation as we assess the impact of the
first 100 days of the Obama era. The President is coping with his own
stress test. He is already at war, not only in Iraq and
Afghanistan/Pakistan, but also with the high expectations he himself
raised. Another front in that war: an increasingly vicious and
contentious right-wing media that is turning its viewers into troops
for an uprising against his "tyranny."
I just returned from the Eurasian Media Forum in Kazakhstan where I
challenged Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele on the bitter
partisan rhetoric regurgitated daily on Fox News that he has reinforced
and not distanced his party from. Steele compared GOP attacks on Obama
to what he considered far more extreme condemnations of President Bush
"by the left." He compared himself to Barack Obama as the second most
important black male in the country and suggested that the elections in
2010 will go against the Democrats because he believes their policies
He might be cocky, but is he right?
It is certainly true that the bailout plans initiated by his
predecessor - and which he supported as a Democratic candidate - have
continued, but have yet to "fix" anything. You can argue that the
"glimmers" of prosperity he identified to stir confidence are an
illusion, and that the depression that many are already experiencing
can and will get worse.
Obama talks left one day and moves right the
next. This is called "pragmatism." He has already compromised some of
his reforms and every welcome initiative like the disclosure of those
Bush torture memos. He kowtowed to the CIA and has now killed the idea
of a Truth Commission, less anyone compare these United States to
despotic days in Chile, Argentina or South Africa. Unfortunately, this
shuffle is hard for many of his most passionate backers to take and
does not build trust and confidence.
Back at the international forum, Obama was still regarded with a
sense of hope and relief by a world weary of the Bushevik order. Yet,
on issue after issue, there was uncertainty on where he stands. Will he
press Israel to push forward with some peace deal? Will he free himself
from the grip of the Lobby and take new initiatives, or will we see
more of the same equivocating that has ignored Israeli settlements and
occupation? It may be significant that Secretary of State Clinton is
proposing to recognize the reality of Hamas' popularity among
Palestinians. I was struck to hear China's brilliant Victor Gao insist
that justice for Palestine (including Gazans) is more important for
America's prestige in the world than what happens in Afghanistan.
Will he ever withdraw from Iraq? Former Bush Ambassador Zalmay
Khalizad says he is still trying to be "helpful" in Iraq and
Afghanistan where he served, and where, as he told me, was shot at
frequently ("I lost several helicopters") during his tenure - he was
preoccupied with defending the Green Zone against frequent shelling by
the "Iraqi resistance." An Iraqi Kurdish leader there told me Obama is
moving slowly and "responsibly." That "responsibly" is seen as an
excuse by anti-war activists who believe Obama is delaying to please
the military. (It reminds me of cold warriors who justified warring on
Vietnam for fear of being accused of losing Vietnam like their
predecessors were lambasted for losing China.)
A recent report in the Financial Times that surveyed the global
downturn had one upbeat piece - a report on how well arms contractors
The Russians at the Conference welcomed Obama's rapprochement with
their President and like his proposal for a phase out of nuclear
weapons, but so far see backtracking on backing human rights there and
in China. There is still a lot of anger at America there, going back to
"the fall of communism," which included the deliberate pillage of many
of Russia's resources by American companies on a destroy and conquer
mission. (One Russian analyst on the panel with me, Professor Igor
Panarin, predicts the US will break up in 6 parts.)
Journalists are by nature skeptics and cynical, but many there were
so relieved that the US pushed "the reset" button in a phrase used by
ex-Congressman Harold Ford Jr. from Tennessee, now head of the centrist
Democratic Leadership Conference. Ford backs Barack, but is also
stressed by all the economic uncertainty. The DLC has a crisis too
because it has consistently stressed free market pro-corporate policies
only to find they contributed to the current calamity.
Later this week, you will hear endless punditry in attempts to offer
a "report card" on the first 100 days, even though they all know it is
too soon to make a real judgment. A lot of this blather will be
partisan and all knowing and most of it will be wrong. There will be
little reference to the bureaucratic and political delays he faces in
staffing up Government agencies including the Treasury, despite the
fact that we are in a major crisis.
As the man at the top, Obama needs a team in place to make things
happen and many of its members are not there yet. (Unfortunately, he
can't use a phrase employed by an innovative journalist on a panel on
the media. The acronym is JFDI - "just fucking do it.") So while
everything internally is moving in slomo speed, everyone on the outside
expects hyper-speed solutions.
The media can be unforgiving and quick to judge, but the public
seems more aware of how deep the challenge is. So far, the President's
approval rating is up. My colleague DXM tells me that for the first
time in the years he has been watching, Obama replaced Britney as the
most searched after name on the Internet. Mr. Obama, however, finished
second. The number one name on this hit parade is another Obama, the
one named Michelle.
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