During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama’s most loyal and affectionate constituency was one that cannot legally vote in U.S. elections: foreigners. His campaign and subsequent election were celebrated in European, Asian, and African capitals. Stamps were issued, posters printed up. Hymns were sung. He was hailed as a bright new John F. Kennedy when he spoke in Berlin, and the Norwegians awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize just for showing up at work for the first couple of months. He visited 20 countries during his first year, a record number, and in China offhandedly declared that, after only a few months of his patented charm, he had “restored America’s standing in the world.”
America’s economic standing in the world has taken a beating since then, as have Obama’s political fortunes — and now, only two years after sending his hope-and-change pixie dust swirling around the planet like the grit from one of those monster Mongolian dust storms, Obama has decided that foreigners are the enemy. Suddenly, Obama’s world looks less like the United Federation of Planets and more like Mos Eisley, that “wretched hive of scum and villainy,” an exotic collection of gangsters and far-flung ne’er-do-wells, inscrutable enemies with inscrutable motives.
Obama is not much focused on the foreigners who want to saw our heads off on jihadi snuff videos, though he has continued fighting the drone wars with at least as much gusto as his predecessor. The foreigners who seem most severely to chap the presidential hide in anno Domini 2010 are those who want to sell us goods and services. And what an enemies list Obama has compiled: the entirely fictitious cabal of foreign financiers he blamed for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s criticism of his party’s fiscal incontinence, the “foreign corporations” he insists are bankrolling sundry other political enemies, and, most important, the go-to foreigners American politicians rely on when an exotic peril must be rustled up in the months before a difficult election: the Chinese.
Obama and the Sinophobe wing of the Democratic party have seized upon what is for them a nearly perfect issue: the valuation of China’s currency, the renminbi. The issue is complicated enough to accommodate the intellectual vanity of the president and his coterie while consigning most voters to a state of rational ignorance, and the narrative is flexible enough to be used to explain away a great many varieties of bad economic news. It’s the all-purpose phlogiston of the self-consciously cerebral policy set. Massive trade deficits? Blame the renminbi. Investment in decline? Blame the renminbi. The fact that Obama’s reckless State of the Union promise to double American exports is starting to look like the sort of thing a luckless gambler says to himself before putting his Greyhound-ticket money on the craps table in Vegas? Blame the renminbi. Persistent levels of historically high unemployment? Chinamen are stealing our jobs and using their artificially devalued currency to do it.
The administration has been stepping up the anti-China rhetoric for a year now, and Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner underwhelmed the G-20 meeting in Gyeongju, South Korea, in late October with non-credible demands that each country adopt policies to keep both trade surpluses and trade deficits “below a specified share” of GDP, with his preferred target being about 4 percent. The Indian delegation responded with whatever the Hindi is for “Get the hell out of here!” — or, as finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, New Delhi’s man at the G-20, put it, “Protectionist policies are not acceptable.” Japan’s representative called the plan “unrealistic,” apparently ignorant of the fact that “unrealistic” is the defining adjective of the Obama administration. The Germans denounced Geithner’s proposal as a move toward a “command economy,” demonstrating a fine Teutonic flair for the obvious. (Too protectionist for the Indians, too authoritarian for the Germans — that’s our economic policy.) Geithner did not mention China by name, and China returned the favor.
It is undeniable that Beijing plays games with China’s currency in order to bolster exports. To put it bluntly, China keeps its people artificially poor, their wages artificially low, and their savings diminished in value, in order to increase the profits flowing into the state enterprises run by Beijing’s power elite, a good deal of the returns being captured by the thriving entrepreneurs who make up the officers’ corps of the People’s Liberation Army. When one considers that China’s economic strategy is predicated on creating needless poverty for its people, it all seems a lot less clever, and Tom Friedman’s occasional orgasmic moans in the New York Times sound a bit nefarious, to say nothing of embarrassing.