Last fall, Barack Obama was deemed by all the great and good as the man to save the country from its financial crisis because of his calm. As John McCain flailed around, Obama stayed steady, and commentators ascribed to him the most extraordinary leadership qualities based merely on his equipoise.
How is that working out? Well, the stock market has lost roughly 25 percent of its value in the past two months, destroying more than $2.6 trillion of wealth. But at least President Obama is calm.
The banking crisis weighs down the economy, with zombie institutions requiring ever more infusions of federal cash (Citigroup has taken $45 billion, and AIG $180 billion and counting). But Obama’s supernatural calm is undisturbed by the financial mayhem.
His treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, has gone from such an indispensable man that he could get away with cheating on his taxes to the butt of “Saturday Night Live” skits in the space of six weeks. His vague and unconvincing bank rescue plan tanked the market, while he hasn’t yet fully staffed the upper echelons of his department. The New York Times reports of him and his team, “Some worry that political and financial constraints have made them reluctant to grapple with the full magnitude of the crisis.” If Obama worries, he does it calmly.
Despite its stated purpose of providing a temporary boost to the economy, Obama’s stimulus plan spends $200 billion in 2011 and beyond — at the same time liberal supporters of the stimulus complain that it doesn’t do enough in the near term. But Obama is serenely calm about it.
As the economy staggers into what seems will be at least the worst recession since World War II, he is proposing $1 trillion in tax increases, including a new broad-based levy on industrial activity. But he’ll impose the taxes very calmly.
With the nation’s finances strained dealing just with the fallout from the financial crisis, he is proposing a radical budget that will increase spending by at least $3 trillion above current projections during the next 10 years. But all his new spending is suffused with a wondrous air of calm.
His budget makes unduly rosy assumptions about the near-term performance of the economy that are already being discredited, pockets fake savings by making absurd assumptions (e.g., that troop levels in Iraq were set to remain at 140,000 forever), and still projects a $637 billion deficit in 2016 even after years of robust, economic growth. But he is as calm as he is dishonest and profligate.
Calm is not in itself a leadership quality. Containing your emotions is important (see George Washington and the Duke of Wellington for a couple of history’s greatest examples), but calm is no substitute for courage, wisdom or imagination. Calm can just as easily be an indication of arrogance as of nervy self-control, of aloofness as of coolness under fire.
The early returns on Obama’s calm aren’t encouraging. During the campaign, his overeager supporters in the press wanted to declare him a world historical figure based on the flimsiest of evidence. The gravest crisis he had ever faced in his career was the Jeremiah Wright controversy, which he responded to with a disingenuous “race speech” defending Wright before dumping him.
As the financial crisis hit, he never took a position on the first AIG bailout. Perhaps this was the truest indication of his instincts on the financial crisis — namely, avoidance. To sidestep the politically risky imperative of asking Congress for even more funds to address the crisis, Geithner has resorted to complex schemes that haven’t yet been thoroughly formulated.
Perhaps Obama’s muddle-through approach to the banks will suffice until the natural resilience of the economy brings a recovery. Or perhaps, as Obama temporizes, the problem gets bigger and worse, discrediting his leadership and exposing the vision of his budget as, in the words of a headline in The Economist, “wishful, and dangerous, thinking.” Either way, Obama will be calm.
(c) 2009 by King Features Syndicate