‘No greater task faces this country or this administration,” he said. “No other challenge is more deserving of our every effort and energy.” Addressing a botched CIA raid into Cuba, Pres. John F. Kennedy turned a complete failure — one that symbolized an ineffective, declining America — into a bold aspiration, declaring his belief in America’s mandate to protect freedom at home and abroad.
President Obama must be tired of being told he could learn a thing or two from his predecessors, but he wears on as if he hasn’t learned a thing. Monday’s speech, in which he addressed the downgrade, had the ring of denial about it. America’s credit, dropping from AAA to AA+, was diminished. The moment called for frankness about what could — and should — be done.
Instead, we got a dodge. The president scheduled a press conference, and then he showed up late for it. (It is a maddening tendency of politicians, especially this one, to ask for our full attention while they divide theirs.) And when he finally had finished smoothing over his remarks, what he wound up saying didn’t sound smoothed over at all. America will always have a AAA rating, he said, regardless of what Standard & Poor’s thinks.
Which is novel. Obama’s party up until this point warned of the imminent catastrophe of a downgrade. (Republicans for the most part agreed, but were beholden to those who claimed otherwise.) Now we’re downgraded, and it suddenly doesn’t matter anymore. America has the Obama AAA rating, and that should be plenty for us, right?
Except it isn’t. S&P’s analysts arrived at their conclusion, and now markets will take it into account, no matter what the president says. Prices don’t ebb and flow according to the Obama rating agency, just as the oceans don’t. False optimism made Don Quixote a great novel — with a tragic hero.
If this year’s State of the Union defined our “Sputnik moment” — a call for Americans to read the writing on the wall — then this is Obama’s Bay of Pigs. A total disaster on the very issue defining his campaign — the economy, the subject that candidate John McCain, with his “erratic behavior,” couldn’t be trusted to mend.
The buck stops with Obama. No one else could sign into law the stimulus spending, the expanded bailouts, the tax hikes, the tax cuts, and the expensive quasi-nationalization of the health-care industry (the crowning achievement that he won’t even discuss these days). Pres. George W. Bush, for all his faults, never shied away from taking responsibility for his failures — when asked by Fox News about his own hand in the bailouts, Bush replied that he had to abandon his free-market principles to save the economy. He didn’t flinch.
Obama, on the other hand, looked like a man who woke up shuddering.
If there was a speech to be made (we’ve heard so many), it should have been one in which he took ownership of the government’s role in undermining S&P’s faith in America’s credit. Instead, President Obama referred passively to the dysfunction of Washington and its political institutions: but he’s in charge of one, and his party is in charge of half of the other.
Obama can’t blame Republicans for the tax cuts he signed into law, because he, well, signed them into law, sighing contemptuously about being forced to do so. He can’t blame Republicans for a shoddy debt deal, because he offered no alternative, aside from vague hints about how the minority party slapped away his grand bargain (further details don’t exist).
It’s not that Americans are eager for a scapegoat. It’s that if Obama is right, and he is a victim, then Americans might be weary of a president who so often finds himself the victim of circumstances rather than the controller of them. His speech made him sound more like the man who comes up with excuses for why he’s been missing his payments to his loan officer than like the man who has a plan to start meeting his obligations. He campaigned as the latter. He has become the former.
Kennedy never gave in to that sort of passivity. Obama’s way forward is to tell Americans that everything he has done has been in the devout belief that we can get the economy going through innovative programs plucked from the grand American tradition of using public spending to foster private innovation, favored by Democrats and Republicans alike. And then he has to pivot — as close to 90 degrees as he can — toward the kind of economics at least some Republicans could endorse.
Instead of finding that way forward, he has boxed himself in. Now, if he pledges to work with renewed vigor toward bipartisan solutions, he has to admit fault for not doing so sooner. If he starts to coopt conservative policies, he must appear either insincere or brazenly cynical.
But even a cynical man can get things done.
This isn’t World War II or the Cold War. It isn’t even the Great Depression, yet. Obama should be attacking our economic problems. Instead, he is attacking S&P and the Republicans. His failure of leadership is a disaster. America knows it will survive — it needs no reassurance from the president on that point. But what it does need from the president is leadership and a plan for success. Obama has shown neither. And that’s why he’s now the AA+ president.
— J. P. Freire is a senior communications strategist at New Media Strategies.