“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?