November 5, 2008
Finally, blessedly, it's over. After the longest, most expensive campaign in American history, the voters have decided who will be the next Great Man to take the helm of our ship of state. Sen. Barack Obama has been swept into the presidency on a wave of contrasting yet complementary emotions.
There is the positive enthusiasm generated by the 47-year-old's "transformational" identity, the idea millions of Americans have seized upon that here is a leader who reflects the multicultural, multiracial reality of present-day America, who seems thoughtful and careful and is a full generation younger than his opponent. The negative emotion at play has to do with widespread disappointment in and disgust at what's happened in the eight years of George W. Bush.
When I mentioned recently that divided government is by far the best government, a listener quickly reminded me that I didn't advocate such a thing back in 2000. That's true, because I bought into the idea, as laughable as it seems now, that most Republicans believed what they preached about limited government, responsible spending and Mr. Bush's pledge to preside over a "humbler" foreign policy. In one of the debates with Al Gore, he said, "If we are an arrogant nation, they will resent us, but if we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us." Then came the attacks of 9/11, the "axis of evil," the invasion of Afghanistan, the "war on terror" and the decision to do away with Saddam Hussein as part of what one might describe as global housekeeping. So much for humility.
People expect a lot out of a new president, and most of them become disillusioned sooner rather than later. The current issue of The American Prospect is devoted to exploring the counterintuitive yet convincingly argued idea that the president doesn't matter as much as you think. Ezra Klein writes, "Executive leadership is important, of course, but the continual failures of our presidents should be lesson enough that it's not sufficient. ... Consider this: Comprehensive health reform has been attempted or considered by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. It cannot be said that all were dunces, or weaklings, or incapable legislative tacticians."
Presidents and congresses have no real control over the economy, though voters think they do. Economic planning is the province of the Federal Reserve and its chairman, now Ben S. Bernanke. There is a foreign policy consensus in Washington that we must remain committed to continued interventions in Eurasia, and there is no indication that the incoming president is likely to depart from that consensus. Consider that his platoons of foreign policy advisers consist largely of people who had the ear of Bill Clinton in the '90s - people who believe that what's gone wrong under Mr. Bush is tactical failure rather than an illustration that the strategy itself is impossible to maintain.
Unemployment is heading upward. It stands now at roughly 6 percent and could well pass 10 percent before the new administration is firmly in place. One of the most telling economic anecdotes I've come across is this from Bill Bonner in The Daily Reckoning: "Volvo got orders for 41,970 of its big trucks in the third quarter of 2007. In the third quarter of 2008, Volvo got a total of 155 similar orders." Because of this kind of collapse in the capital equipment market, shipping rates are suffering an equivalent collapse. It's all part of the deleveraging that's sweeping through the global economy.
One could well imagine President Obama asking the question that Bill McKay, played by Robert Redford in the 1972 film The Candidate, asks when he pulls aside his top adviser during a victory party and says, "What do I do now?"
Good luck to the latest Great Man. He'll need it - and so will we.
Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., on 1090 WBAL-AM and WBAL.com. His column appears Wednesdays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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