Waiting for instructions

“I don’t want to pretend that today marks the end of our economic problems. But today does mark the beginning of the end,” President Barack Obama said on Tuesday when he signed the economic stimulus bill. It was a rare message of hope from a president who campaigned his way to the White House on the theme.

Has the president, who has got a big speech to give on Tuesday, become too much of a downer? Are we in such denial that we need to be told how bad things are… again?

Writing in the New York Times this weekend, Frank Rich chronicles Americans’ ability to deny bad news and accept the enormity of the economic crisis. What is a president to do?

Pity our new president. As he rolls out one recovery package after another, he can’t know for sure what will work. If he tells the whole story of what might be around the corner, he risks instilling fear itself among Americans who are already panicked. (Half the country, according to a new Associated Press poll, now fears unemployment.) But if the president airbrushes the picture too much, the country could be as angry about ensuing calamities as it was when the Bush administration’s repeated assertion of “success” in Iraq proved a sham. Managing America’s future shock is a task that will call for every last ounce of Obama’s brains, temperament and oratorical gifts.

More than half of America now fears unemployment, one in 10 homes are in foreclosure, retirements are now unattainable. Minnesota courts are about to let scofflaws run amok, and the nation is running out of rich people. The economic recession was felt out here in the working world long before it reached the cubicles of the New York Times or, most certainly, the Oval office.

We get it. The economy is bad. Really bad.

While Rich wonders whether Americans will “get it,” his op-ed page colleague, Maureen Dowd, wonders whether it’s Washington that fails to grasp the reality of the situation.

President Obama disdains sound bites, and he does not have Bill Clinton’s talent for reducing the abstruse to aperçus. We wanted someone smart to gather a bunch of smart people around him to get us out of this fix. But Mr. Obama’s egghead manner has failed to soothe a nation with the jits. Maybe he has been so intent on avoiding the stereotype of the Angry Black Man, as he wrote in his memoir, that it’s hard for him to connect with and articulate public anger about our diminishment.

Though he demonstrated in the campaign that he has a rare gift for inspiring the country with new belief in itself, Mr. Obama has not yet captured either the grit the moment requires or the fury it provokes. He has not explained in a compelling way why Americans who followed the rules need to sacrifice more to help those who flouted the rules.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is that politicians use speeches to us, not to talk to us, but to send messages to each other. When the president tells us how bad things are, he’s talking to Republicans who don’t support his proposed his solution. Here in Minnesota, the DFL, for example, is engaged in “listening sessions” around the state to come up with ideas for closing the state’s budget gap. When they heard the first one the other night in St. Cloud, that was one more than the DFL has presented, since it’s yet to propose an alternative to the governor’s budget. Lawmakers, no doubt, have their own ideas how to do it, but the “inner cynic” can be forgiven for thinking they want the political cover of full meeting rooms in small towns across Minnesota first.

Meanwhile, Minnesotans — and most Americans — wait for instructions on what we are supposed to do now about the situation, the extent of which we know only too well.

What is the one message you want to hear from the politicians and pundits now?

  • Lindsay

    I attended a townhall meeting yesterday with my state senator and state representative. I do think it’s hard to grasp the size of the budget problem. There were two camps in the room: one wanted to only raise taxes on rich people and the other only wanted to clean up welfare fraud. Our legislators both said those were important ideas, but even if we did both, that would only solve about 10% of the budget deficit. Looking at the budget materials they handed out, it’s hard to accept the idea of cutting schools or aid to nursing homes, but those are the largest pieces of the budget. It was hard to listen to, and I don’t know yet what we should do as a community. How do we choose between kids and grandparents?

  • Bob Collins

    I’m hoping to attend my town meeting on Monday night. Clearly many of the options we’ve been presented with our distasteful.

    Lindsay, did you get the impression that the message was that all of the options are distasteful and there was an attempt to reach consensus on which is the least distasteful? Or was the sense that people didn’t want the process to be distasteful at all. And if so, what was their solution?

    In other words, do these meetings get past the complaining stage and to the solutions stage?

  • Bob

    I. Want. The. Truth.

    I don’t care if the truth is a “downer” or is “distasteful;” the truth is what it is. I personally am very interested in knowing what’s around the corner. If Obama knows, it’s his duty to share that with the nation. The idea that our leaders should lie to us to make us feel better is a totally whack notion.

    When the President tells us how bad things are, guess what? It’s because things are bad.

  • Joe

    The truth is when it comes to the state budget- no new taxes (which itself is a misnomer since the governor has a long and distinguished record of raising fees all the time and forcing local units to raise taxes to pay for essential services) means painful cuts to pre-K-12 education, higher ed., health care, courts and law enforcement. We are in a pickle- the problem is no politician will challenge the notion that the state can in fact spend the money smarter and better than you can yourself. $10-25 a month per household can make a real difference to the quality of life in this state- individually for most households, even in this economy that is not make or break. If it is- then that’s some of the folks we should be helping anyway.

  • Lindsay

    I thought there was an attempt to be productive on the part of the legislators, but I wouldn’t say that the meeting itself led to any solutions. For every one person who said, let’s set a budget based on evidence and outcomes, there were five people who would say, well the state would have all the money in the world if it weren’t for stadiums. As a group we never came around to the point of saying, ok, if we had to choose, cut people off of health care in order to save the schools. Or, alternatively, if we had to choose, don’t cut people off of health care, cut the colleges instead. They all seem like terrible choices, and I don’t think that we as community residents were able to give the legislators any clear guidance on what choices to make. We were too torn ourselves.

  • bsimon

    “What is the one message you want to hear from the politicians and pundits now?”

    It wasn’t too many months ago – less than a year – that certain candidates in the presidential election were talking about a ‘fundamentally strong economy’. The prior president also expressed this level of confidence in the economy. So President Obama does have a duty, of sorts, to deliver a more sober assessment of the economic situation we face.

    The way I see it, the president has to reestablish credibility – between the people and our political leaders – in order to ask us to make the sacrifices that will have to be made to get out of this mess. The danger, as outlined in another article in yesterday’s NYT, is that bad news can become a self-flulfilling prophecy. While Mr Rich is correct – we’ve been collectively delusional for far too long – waking up to reality could push us too far the other way; the example I’ve seen cited is Japan, where people are living extremely frugally & their domestic economy is stalled as a result.

    So the message I want to hear from our political leaders is in the ‘tough love’ category. They need to tell us we’ve been soft, that we must reestablish a sustainable economy based on sound spending habits – borrow only for long-term investments that have long-term payback. Sort term spending must come from the cash budget – in consumer terms, don’t by groceries with the HELOC.