Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Monday, May 14, 2012

Thinking about the next economic crisis could help Obama

Economic issues, everyone says, are more important today than social issues. Yet, same-sex marriage, contraceptives, and respect for family pets keep interfering. Putative vice-presidents even have to clear up what they think of Ayn Rand’s novels; Mother’s Day has become a political mine field.

The “It’s the economy, stupid” Cult complains that getting off the economic issues is amateurish (Republican primary losers) or cynical (White House election planners). Nevertheless, they keep doing it because they find it rewarding; the so-called distractions actually get people talking about politics and the candidates.

America’s unsatisfying economic recovery handicaps the presidential candidates. But, as entertainment, it’s not much better than watching paint dry.

It marginally benefits Romney, the boring bystander with steady management skills, and it threatens to put Obama into that deadly Democratic frame—another ineffectual do-gooder, another Jimmy Carter. However, the voters and the partisans aren’t going to spend the next 5 months spinning the increments and decrements of the monthly US labor market surveys.

Republicans want Obama to try to persuade Americans that they were lucky to even have peas to eat over the last four years. They want voters in November to be frustrated about the economy and ready for further tax cuts.

Republicans would like Americans to be a little more hopeful about the future. Conversely, Democrats should want them to worry about what could happen next.

Obama needn’t simply generalize about the choices for America. He can ask: who do you want to be your leader in the next big crisis?

In the words of Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, the US will face a “fiscal cliff’ on Jan. 1, 2013. The New York Times put it succinctly:

“If a bipartisan agreement cannot be reached before the end of the year, nearly $8 trillion in deficit reduction could go into force in a sudden rush, a boon to budget hawks but a potential disaster for the fragile economic recovery.”

This crisis is baked into the law; it is the all-American consequence of procrastination, gridlock, and extremism. Its resolution will be messy and will offend diehard conservatives and liberals. Who is president—who drives the compromises and holds the final pen—will determine whether the economy continues to grow.

It’s not easy for any president to talk about a problem that is growing on his watch. However, this problem is about to finally blow up and its dimensions add flesh and bones to the real election issue: who do you trust to protect your interests?

Obama has done well in two domestic crises already. He won the last presidential election, in part, because he looked like the safest bet to tackle the financial crisis of the winter of 2008-09. As a pragmatist ready to compromise, he also came out of the debt-ceiling crisis of last summer in much better shape than the Republican leadership.

Optimism about the future will not grow, as this crisis gets closer. Obama’s prospects for re-election will not harden until he gets more concrete about the issue and more insistent that the Republicans could mess it up.

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