Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Strange Change

"I love you, Obama!"

Remember that?

When Barack Obama was running for president in 2008, someone always yelled that out to him in the middle of a speech. And he'd usually yell back,

"I love you, too!"

The night Obama reached 2118, the number of delegates needed to clinch the Democratic nomination, he even elaborated a bit:

"I love you, too. Oh, I really do!"

Obama was praised back then for his oratorical style. For his charisma. He could motivate people, especially young people. He could inspire them, like no politician had since JFK, whose daughter endorsed him.

Two years later, Obama's often referred to as "professorial", as "cold", as "arrogant", as someone who doesn't relate well with people. And that old nickname from his law school days is back: No Drama Obama.

There was plenty of drama in 2008. My God, people use to faint at his rallies. He was Elvis. Now he's John Tesh. Some feared in 2008 that a candidate with so much charisma might become a dictator. Given the shellacking (Obama's own words) his party just took in the mid-term elections, he's about as effective a dictator as a 94-year old substitute teacher trying to break up a reform school knife fight.

This isn't the change I wanted to believe in.

Maybe Obama is like Jimmy Carter by way of cartoonist Garry Trudeau. In a series of 1970s Doonesbury strips, Carter appoints Duane Delacourt as Secretary of Symbolism, who advises the President to wear a cardigan, walk instead of take a limo on inauguration day, and answer questions on a call-in radio show. A few years later, a disillusioned Delacourt leaves the administration and joins up with Jerry Brown (yes, my younger readers, Brown was also in the news way back when.) As Delacourt explains to reporter Rick Redfern, Carter has lost interest in symbolism and seems intent on addressing the issues. Substitute symbolism with charisma and you have Obama. Now don't get me wrong, I'm all for him addressing the issues, but not at the expense of his own personal magnetism. Would it kill him to multi-task? C'mon, the man carries a Blackberry!

Obama is said to admire Lincoln, but he should move up some 70 years to FDR. I thinking of the Fireside Chats. I learned about those chats in school, but until recently never actually heard one. I grew up thinking they were just meant to comfort or soothe people during the Great Depression. I figured FDR said something like, "Don't you worry about the big, bad depression, Uncle Frank will take good care of it. Now just pull that newspaper up over you on that park bench and have a good night sleep." However, a couple of years ago I actually got a chance to hear one of those chats. Roosevelt didn't just comfort, he didn't just soothe, he explained, he educated.

In 1933, banks were failing right and left. This scared a good portion of the population, and they responded by withdrawing their money. This in turn caused banks to not only fail left and right but also up and down and in and out. To deal with the crises, Roosevelt declared a Bank Holiday, closing the savings institutions for a couple of days. He then want on the radio to explain to those who hadn't already had their radios repossessed why he did this. It's a lengthy speech, or chat. I just want to focus on one paragraph:

First of all let me state the simple fact that when you deposit money in a bank the bank does not put the money into a safe deposit vault. It invests your money in many different forms of credit-bonds, commercial paper, mortgages and many other kinds of loans. In other words, the bank puts your money to work to keep the wheels of industry and of agriculture turning around. A comparatively small part of the money you put into the bank is kept in currency -- an amount which in normal times is wholly sufficient to cover the cash needs of the average citizen. In other words the total amount of all the currency in the country is only a small fraction of the total deposits in all of the banks.

Roosevelt then goes on to explain that if everybody withdraws their money at once, which is exactly what was happening, even the healthiest banks would go under. The people listening accepted the new President's reasoning. They cut him some much needed slack, legislation was passed shoring up the system, and the banks soon reopened. FDR's stock soared.

Back to Obama. No, I'm not suggesting he declare a bank holiday. TARP, I guess, solved that problem. I'm thinking of the stimulus. Many economists warned him that the first one just wasn't big enough, and now they're saying we need another. Whether the new Republican majority in the House will let him have another is doubtful. But he still has the old Democratic majority for next couple of weeks. Can't they pass something?

Here's Obama's problem. The stimulus is based on the theories of the late John Maynard Keynes. He believed the government could lift an economy out of a depression or recession by injecting cash, often referred to as priming the pump, usually in the form of public projects. Where does the government get this money, since tax receipts are low during a downturn? By running a deficit. Unfortunately, for advocates of such an approach, spending money you don't have to solve a problem is counter-intuitive to most people, definitely not something you want to try at home.

This is why Obama needs to give a Fireside, or, if you want to update it a little, a Space Heater Chat. Explain the theory. Tell the folks that if you spend money to build a bridge, it's not just bridge builders themselves that profit, that with money in their pockets, they'll go out and buy things in stores, and the people who work in the stores will have more money, as will the people who work in the factories and warehouses that supplies the stores with goods. The economy will rebound, tax receipts will go up, and the deficit will take care of itself.

Would such a chat work? Couldn't hurt. And we have TV now. Obama could shine those pearly whites as he comforted, soothed, explained, and educated.

Maybe the President's confidence has just been shaken a bit. Perhaps he just needs some positive reinforcement.

Here's what I want all of you Obama supporters to do, even those who may be having second thoughts. At the count of the three, I want you all to join together, and, as loud as you can, give him a giant word of encouragement.



Let's hope it's not unrequited.


  1. Oh, Kirk, you should offer your services as a speech-writer for Obama. That was eloquent!

    I was (and am) an Obama supporter and I keep hoping that things will somehow miraculously improve.

  2. Thank you for your kind comment, Kass. I think my style might be a little too arch for Obama, but who knows? Mr. President, if you're reading this and are interested...

  3. i don't think your style is too arch for obama, but maybe for the non-reading, non-critically -thinking population?

  4. standing--Actually, it's been my observation that most non-readers simply stay away from the polls on election day, meaning our leaders are indeed chosen by people who keep abreast of the latest developments.

    Some readers vote Democratic, and other readers vote Republican. Literacy alone doesn't determine a person's political philosphy. I wish it were that simple, but it's not.

    Remember, for many years in the old Jim Crow South, a person wasn't allowed to vote unless he or she first took a literacy test. Since blacks at that time received an inferior education, they were much more likely to flunk such tests. Too many of those who did pass these tests (guess the color of their skins) kept electing leaders who made damn sure that blacks kept on getting an inferior education so they would keep on flunking literacy tests. It took a lot of critical thinking to keep that system going!

  5. Of course, FDR had legislation passed that would have prevented the current melt down, i.e., keeping investment banks separate from commercial banks. Guys like Sandy Weill (of Citibank infamy) got Clinton to sign off on deregulation of the banking industry and here we are.

  6. @Badger--I just read this in the Daily Beast. You might find it interesting:

    "Could Larry Summers be replaced by another old Clinton hand? Bloomberg News says that Roger Altman, a former deputy Treasury secretary under President Clinton, has interviewed to replace Summers as the head of the National Economic Council. President Obama met with Altman Tuesday afternoon. Altman, who founded Evercore Partners Inc., has close ties with the business community. Jon Cohn at The New Republic writes,'The optics make no sense to me. A major source of discontent with Obama is the perception that he's too close to the financial industry. Or, to put it more bluntly, everybody that doesn't work on Wall Street hates Wall Street. Making somebody from the financial industry the president's top economic adviser sends exactly the wrong message.'"

    I don't necessarily suscribe to the above point of view, since I don't know jack shit about Roger Altman. He may make a prefectly good head of the National Economic Council. But Obama seems a little too taken with these economic establishment types who didn't see this mess coming. Can't Obama find somebody who PREDICTED or WARNED everybody about the current meltdown, and give them a shot at making policy?

  7. Just checked out Altman's bio on Wikipedia. Seems he resigned from the Treasury Department because of a record-keeping scandel. No details were given.

    By the way, at the very top of the Wikipedia article was this note of caution:

    "Highly unreliable as Roger Altman and Robert Altman are forever confused with one another"

    Good thing they warned me! The last thing we need out of the Obama White House is overlapping dialogue (those of you who recognize the name Robert Altman should get that joke.)


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