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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

2029: Look back in wonder

Sometimes I think I'll look back on all the posts hearting Obama's speeches and think, 'what a sap, to have pored over a politician's promises and prescriptions as if they're holy writ.'

Other times, I think I'll be glad to have been there and watching at a time when democracy became democracy.

When we elected a leader who spoke to the electorate as adults, and told us what he was going to do and why, and why he wasn't going to do what his critics said he should do.

Yesterday, when I read the speech on the economy that Obama delivered at Georgetown, was one of those times.

There were no tricks, unless you consider explaining complex economic forces in terms an attentive elementary school student could understand a trick. Only clarity, complexity, transparency and -- given the length of ground covered -- brevity.

When we look back at the presidency, regardless of outcome, we will remember what Obama did to elevate our public discourse:

1. He spoke to us as adults regardless of educational level. As in this capsule of Keynes:
To begin with, economists on both the left and right agree that the last thing a government should do in the middle of a recession is to cut back on spending. You see, when this recession began, many families sat around their kitchen table and tried to figure out where they could cut back. So do many businesses. That is a completely responsible and understandable reaction. But if every family in America cuts back, then no one is spending any money, which means there are more layoffs, and the economy gets even worse. That's why the government has to step in and temporarily boost spending in order to stimulate demand. And that's exactly what we're doing right now.
And this explanation of why he is increasing spending in key areas in the face of enormous deficits:
Just as a cash-strapped family may cut back on luxuries but will insist on spending money to get their children through college, so we as a country have to make current choices with an eye on the future. If we don't invest now in renewable energy or a skilled workforce or a more affordable health care system, this economy simply won't grow at the pace it needs to in two or five or ten years down the road.
And this diagnosis of the unsustainable economic fundamentals exposed by the financial crisis:
It is simply not sustainable to have a 21st century financial system that is governed by 20th century rules and regulations that allowed the recklessness of a few to threaten the entire economy. It is not sustainable to have an economy where in one year, 40% of our corporate profits came from a financial sector that was based too much on inflated home prices, maxed out credit cards, overleveraged banks and overvalued assets; or an economy where the incomes of the top 1% have skyrocketed while the typical working household has seen their income decline by nearly $2,000.
2. He explained why he was doing something unpopular:
Now, what we've also learned during this crisis is that our banks aren't the only institutions affected by these toxic assets that are clogging the financial system. A.I.G., for example, is not a bank. And yet because it chose to insure trillions of dollars worth of risky assets, its failure could threaten the entire financial system and freeze lending even further. This is why, as frustrating as it is – and I promise you, nobody is more frustrated than me – we've had to provide support for A.I.G. It's also why we need new legal authority so that we have the power to intervene in such financial institutions, just like a bankruptcy court does with businesses that hit hard times, so that we can restructure these businesses in an orderly way that does not induce panic – and can restructure inappropriate bonus contracts without creating a perception that government can just change compensation rules on a whim.
Compare, btw, his defense of the bank bailout in debate with McCain.

3. He addressed critics from both sides of an issue
without setting up any straw men. For example, on shoring up banks without (yet) nationalizing them:
And although there are a lot of Americans who understandably think that government money would be better spent going directly to families and businesses instead of banks – "where's our bailout?," they ask – the truth is that a dollar of capital in a bank can actually result in eight or ten dollars of loans to families and businesses, a multiplier effect that can ultimately lead to a faster pace of economic growth.

On the other hand, there have been some who don't dispute that we need to shore up the banking system, but suggest that we have been too timid in how we go about it. They say that the federal government should have already preemptively stepped in and taken over major financial institutions the way that the FDIC currently intervenes in smaller banks, and that our failure to do so is yet another example of Washington coddling Wall Street. So let me be clear – the reason we have not taken this step has nothing to do with any ideological or political judgment we've made about government involvement in banks, and it's certainly not because of any concern we have for the management and shareholders whose actions have helped cause this mess.

Rather, it is because we believe that preemptive government takeovers are likely to end up costing taxpayers even more in the end, and because it is more likely to undermine than to create confidence. Governments should practice the same principle as doctors: first do no harm. So rest assured – we will do whatever is necessary to get credit flowing again, but we will do so in ways that minimize risks to taxpayers and to the broader economy.
4. He granted that 'the other side may sometimes have a point':
Some have argued that we shouldn't attempt such a transition until the economy recovers, and they are right that we have to take the costs of transition into account. But we can no longer delay putting a framework for a clean energy economy in place. If businesses and entrepreneurs know today that we are closing this carbon pollution loophole, they will start investing in clean energy now.

5. He demolished unserious, anecdotal, purely political attacks on his program:
Third, the problem with our deficit and debt is not new. It has been building dramatically over the past eight years, largely because big tax cuts combined with increased spending on two wars and the increased costs of government health care programs. This structural gap in our budget, between the amount of money coming in and the amount going out, will only get worse as Baby Boomers age, and will in fact lead us down an unsustainable path. But let's not kid ourselves and suggest that we can do it by trimming a few earmarks or cutting the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts.
All together now: why is John McCain not President?

6. He acknowledged pain to come and focused attention on the long-term:
This is all welcome and encouraging news, but it does not mean that hard times are over. 2009 will continue to be a difficult year for America's economy. The severity of this recession will cause more job loss, more foreclosures, and more pain before it ends. The market will continue to rise and fall. Credit is still not flowing nearly as easily as it should. The process for restructuring AIG and the auto companies will involve difficult and sometimes unpopular choices. All of this means that there is much more work to be done. And all of this means that you can continue to expect an unrelenting, unyielding, day-by-day effort from this administration to fight for economic recovery on all fronts.
7. He explained the interdependence of the "pillars" of his economic plan, implicitly arguing that the edifice would be at risk if any of those pillars were pulled. To do so, he followed his established practice -- and stated ground rules -- for bringing faith into the public square: deriving authority from Biblical metaphor, but only in terms that appeal to universal values (see: The Gospel according to Obama). He thus implicitly cast his program as God's work without claiming any authority other than assent to his reasoning:

There is a parable at the end of the Sermon on the Mount that tells the story of two men. The first built his house on a pile of sand, and it was destroyed as soon as the storm hit. But the second is known as the wise man, for when "…the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house…it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock."

We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity – a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest; where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad.

It's a foundation built upon five pillars that will grow our economy and make this new century another American century: new rules for Wall Street that will reward drive and innovation; new investments in education that will make our workforce more skilled and competitive; new investments in renewable energy and technology that will create new jobs and industries; new investments in health care that will cut costs for families and businesses; and new savings in our federal budget that will bring down the debt for future generations. That is the new foundation we must build. That must be our future – and my Administration's policies are designed to achieve that future.
An implicit appeal: would you knock out one or more pillars of this foundation? Would you pick and choose precepts from the Sermon on the Mount?

8. He identified the core long-range economic challenge facing the United States. This pivots off his dismissal, cited above, of the earmark shibboleth:
Along with defense and interest on the national debt, the biggest costs in our budget are entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security that get more and more expensive every year. So if we want to get serious about fiscal discipline – and I do – then we are going to not only have to trim waste out of our discretionary budget, a process we have already begun – but we will also have to get serious about entitlement reform.

Nothing will be more important to this goal than passing health care reform that brings down costs across the system, including in Medicare and Medicaid. Make no mistake: health care reform is entitlement reform. That's not just my opinion – that was the conclusion of a wide range of participants at the Fiscal Responsibility Summit we held at the White House in February, and that's one of the reasons why I firmly believe we need to get health care reform done this year.

Once we tackle rising health care costs, we must also work to put Social Security on firmer footing. It is time for both parties to come together and find a way to keep the promise of a sound retirement for future generations. And we should restore a sense of fairness and balance to our tax code by shutting down corporate loopholes and ensuring that everyone pays what they owe.
9. He defined leadership as he enacted it - returning to his oldest campaign theme, that we can't effectively reform policy without reforming our politics:
This brings up one final point I'd like to make today. I've talked a lot about the fundamental weakness in our economy that led us to this day of reckoning. But we also arrived here because of a fundamental weakness in our political system.

For too long, too many in Washington put off hard decisions for some other time on some other day. There's been a tendency to score political points instead of rolling up sleeves to solve real problems. There is also an impatience that characterizes this town – an attention span that has only grown shorter with the twenty-four hour news cycle, and insists on instant gratification in the form of immediate results or higher poll numbers. When a crisis hits, there's all too often a lurch from shock to trance, with everyone responding to the tempest of the moment until the furor has died away and the media coverage has moved on, instead of confronting the major challenges that will shape our future in a sustained and focused way.

This can't be one of those times. The challenges are too great. The stakes are too high. I know how difficult it is for Members of Congress in both parties to grapple with some of the big decisions we face right now. It's more than most congresses and most presidents have to deal with in a lifetime.

But we have been called to govern in extraordinary times. And that requires an extraordinary sense of responsibility – to ourselves, to the men and women who sent us here, and to the many generations whose lives will be affected for good or for ill because of what we do here.
This is one of Obama's oldest themes. It's remarkable to look back and consider the resonances it's picked up, as two years of political attack have bounced off him, and as his standing call to engage policy seriously ran head-on into a world economic crisis. It tacks back to his engagment with serious and frivolous criticism throughout the speech. It resonates because he has led by example, teaching us how to debate policy in the public sphere.

1 comment:

  1. It's good to see Obama talking about how such a large % of corporate profits shouldn't be from the financial sector (like we had in the last 10 years and of course we have now found out was really illusory). I hope he gets that it's not just rule changes we need, it's a wholesale scaling back of the role of financials in the economy.

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