Few pieces of political “wisdom” are more tediously recycled than a well-retailed bon mot of British prime minister Harold Macmillan. Asked what he feared most in the months ahead, he gave an amused Edwardian response: “Events, dear boy, events.” In other words, you can plan all you want but next month, next year, some guy off the radar screen will launch a war, or there’ll be an earthquake, or something. Governments get thrown off course by “events.”
It suggests a perverse kind of genius that the 44th president did not wait for a single “event” to throw him off course. Instead he threw himself off: “Is Obama tanking already?” (Congressional Quarterly); “Has Barack Obama’s presidency already failed?” (the Financial Times). Whether or not it’s “already” failed or tanked, the monthly magazines still gazing out from their newsstands with their glossy inaugural covers of a smiling Barack and Michelle waltzing on the audacity of hope seem like musty historical artifacts from a lost age. The ship didn’t need to hit an iceberg; it stalled halfway down the slipway. This is still the phase before “events” come into play, when an incoming president has nothing to get in the way of his judgment and executive competence. President Obama chose to nominate Tim “Indispensable” Geithner and Tom “Home, James!” Daschle, men whose enthusiasm for the size of the federal budget is in inverse proportion to their urge to contribute to it. He chose to nominate as commerce secretary first the scandal-afflicted Bill Richardson and then the freakishly scandal-free Judd Gregg, and wound up losing both.
To be sure, the present state of the economy is an “event,” and has blown many governments around the world off course. But again: The hideous drooling blob of toxic pustules dignified as “stimulus” is something the incoming Obama had months to prepare for, with oodles of bipartisan goodwill and fawning press coverage to waft him along. Instead he chose to outsource it to Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Barney Frank, and the rest of the congressional pork barons. So that too is not an “event” but merely, like his cabinet picks, a matter of judgment and executive competence.
Not to matter. When the going gets tough, the tough go campaigning. So, almost as if he were still running for office rather than actually running an office, the president arranges a photo-op or a town-hall meeting, where, for the moment, the hopeychangey shtick still plays. “I have an urgent need,” a freeborn citizen of the republic (I use the term loosely) beseeched the president in Fort Myers this week. “We need a home, our own kitchen, our own bathroom.”
As Michelle Malkin commented of the urgent needer: “If she had [had] more time, she probably would have remembered to ask Obama to fill up her gas tank, too.” Obama took her name — Henrietta Hughes — and ordered his staff to meet with her. Hopefully, he won’t insult her by dispatching some no-name deputy assistant associate secretary of whatever instead of flying in one of the bigtime tax-avoiding cabinet honchos to nationalize a Florida bank and convert one of its branches into a desirable family residence, with a swing set hanging where the drive-thru ATM used to be.
Still, the audience loved it. “Yes!” they yelped, and “Amen!” — and even “Gracious God, thank you so much!” In the words of Bob Hope: “Leave your name with the girl, and we may get to you for some crowd scenes.” Ah, but eventually the hosannas fade, and the community-organizer-in-chief has to return to Washington to attend to the drearier chores of being president. The “buy American” provisions in the “stimulus” will invite certain retaliation around the world, wrote Jagdish Bhagwati, the Columbia economics prof, in the New York Times. This is presumably the same Jagdish Bhagwati who reassured a Toronto audience last year that he was endorsing Obama despite the senator’s anti-NAFTA, anti-free-trade rhetoric because he didn’t think Obama really believed it. Today it’s even less clear what, if anything, Obama believes — and, even more critically, whether he has the wit or authority to impose those beliefs on a Congress whose operating procedure for the new era seems to be business as usual with three extra zeroes on the end.
Someday soon this inaugural Obamateur Hour (as one of my correspondents, John Gross, calls it) will end and the “events” phase will begin. Back last spring, some gloomy reflections of mine on multiculturalism prompted a reader to advise me to lighten up: “We’re rich enough that we can afford to be stupid.” A mere nine months later, the first part of that equation no longer seems quite so obvious. The market value of the U.S. banking sector is worth barely a quarter of what it was two years ago — from just north of $1.4 trillion in February 2007 to under $400 billion at the beginning of this month, and that due only to the “bailout.” The so-called Wall Street fat cats are, in fact, emaciated cadavers in the late stages of that feline version of HIV.
On the other hand, U.S. mortgage debt has more than quadrupled since 1990, from $2.5 trillion to over $10 trillion. On the other other hand — you may be running out of fingers by now — the IMF has increased its calculation of potential losses on U.S.-originated credit assets from $1.4 trillion last October to $2.2 trillion today, and that’s at the lowball end of estimates (others figure closer to $4 trillion). If you stick the community-organizer-in-chief in a room with Henrietta Hughes, he can play Bob Barker and tell her to “come on down!” But it’s not obvious that that technique will be quite so effective back in the Oval Office, poring over the smoldering ledgers.
2008: We’re rich enough that we can afford to be stupid.
2009: We’re not so rich so let’s be even more stupid.
The Obama narrative as packaged by the American media (another all-but-bankrupt industry, not coincidentally) is very appealing. Wouldn’t it be so much nicer if a benign paternalist sovereign could take care of all the beastly grown-up stuff like mortgages and health care, like he’s gonna do for Henrietta Hughes, while simultaneously blowing gazillions on “green” initiatives and other touchyfeely things?
America has a choice: It can reacquaint itself with socioeconomic reality, or it can buckle its mandatory seatbelt for the same decline most of the rest of the West embraced a couple of generations back. In 1897, troops from the greatest empire the world had ever seen marched down London’s mall for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. Seventy years later, Britain had government health care, a government-owned car industry, massive government housing, and it was a shriveled high-unemployment socialist basket-case living off the dwindling cultural capital of its glorious past. In 1945, America emerged from the Second World War as the preeminent power on earth. Seventy years later . . .
Let’s not go there.