Sunday, March 22, 2009

This would be another great time not to panic

I've been thinking about that Rudyard Kipling poem, "If," particularly this line:

"If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;"
What a time to apply an overused line. This is about the clearest example of that idea at work that I have ever seen. Everywhere I look I see and hear panic, frustration, confusion, anger. I also see hope and some optimism. But lots of angst.

Except, of course, in Barack Obama. Or in Michelle Obama. Malia and Sasha are probably reasonably calm, too, but that's to be expected from kids who have incredibly cool parents.

In the WaPo opinion section, slings and arrows are coming from the left and right. William Greider, national correspondent for The Nation, and Baby Boomer liberal relic, is worried about something called the "corporate state," which sounds ominous, and would probably have me trembling in fear if I couldn't dismiss it as a meaningless cliche reminiscient of the worthless blather I read when I was studying the Frankfurt School. What the hell is a "corporate state?" A government controlled by corporations? The relations between government and corporations in this society is incredibly complex and constantly changing. Using the phrase "corporate state" dismisses that complexity as unworthy of discussion, and replaces it with a trivial demogogic appellation. Here's a great example of Greider's stale tactics:

The president is now trapped between these two realms -- the governing elites who decide things and the people who are governed. Which side is he on? If he does not choose wisely, the anger could devour his presidency.
Or it might not. The anger at AIG and their close friends on Wall Street might stay directed at corporate idiots and criminals. Maybe, just maybe, the President of the United States, an incredibly gifted progressive leader, might be able to focus that anger and achieve some kind of real reform. He might decide that he is on the side of the people who elected him. Which would mean that the anger would not devour his presidency.

From the right, Kathleen Parker, one of the nicer conservatives in the punditocracy, writes a pieces titled "The Foundering Father," and spouts just as much random nonsense as Greider, this time accusing Obama of not being in charge. She quotes his response to the AIG mess, "The buck stops with me," and then dismisses it as a cliche. That's an interesting rhetorical device: provide evidence that your political opponent is doing exactly what he should be doing, and then use an almost-clever line to diminish the significance of his achievement.

I think Obama is still doing a fantastic job. I also think a little perspective is in order. I'm going to repeat the oft-repeated line that Obama has been in office just a few weeks, but I am going to add a caveat.

Obama inherited a number of problems. He is tackling many of them. He has started cleaning up some spectacular messes. He and his staff have made some mistakes cleaning them up. But that is to be expected, and Obama warned repeatedly that mistakes would be made.

Obama's big problem right now is not a lack of focus, it's not the random mistakes, it's not the criticism from the right or left. Obama's problem is that he has spent a fair amount of political capital, he's attempting the impossible on several fronts, and, as of right now, Sunday morning, March 22, 2009, he has almost nothing to show for it. But that's just a function of time.

The analogy that I would like to propose is this: imagine a married couple, who have just gotten married. They've just bought a house together. They moved to a new state so that one of them could get a better job, and the other one is unemployed. The honeymoon was a couple of months ago. They're moving in together, merging households, changing addresses, adjusting to lots of new realities. They have a big fight. About something each thinks is important, but really isn't. In the middle of the fight, neither wants to compromise, each may be wondering, "why did I marry this person?" Things look ugly.

But then one of them agrees with something the other one said, and apologizes, and then the other apologizes for something else, and they start to mellow. They get over it. They go out to dinner and a movie. Etc., etc.

That's where our political situation is right now. We're in the middle of the fight. We've got lots of boxes to unpack, and the TV isn't set up, so we can't watch movies, there are plumbing problems we didn't know about, the neighbors aren't as friendly as we had hoped, we miss our old friends, haven't seen family in a while, etc. We know this marriage and this move and the new job were worth it, but we don't see a payoff yet.

We are spending trillions of dollars on things that we don't understand. Will we be able to solve the credit crunch, the recession, etc.? Eventually. Are we doing this the right way? I have no idea. We've pumped $170 billion into AIG, and there are no visible signs that we have gotten anything in return. All those "shovel-ready" programs funded by the stimulus package? Has anyone seen a bridge repaired, a pothole filled? Probably not. Are we going to be wasting billions? Yes. If 1% of the stimulus package vaporizes into thin air, that's about $8 billion down the drain. And that would be a best-case scenario.

But at some point, the fight is over. The boxes are unpacked, the cable TV is working, the new dishwasher is installed. At some point the potholes will start to be filled, the bridges repaired. Troops will start coming home. We'll be making nice with the Iranians and the Syrians and the Cubans. There won't be as many people arrested for using medical marijuana in California and other states that allow it.

And I will be thankful that Barack and Michelle (and Malia and Sasha) and all the people who work for them chose this time as a great time not to panic.

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