A fortnight is a long time in politics. It corresponds most recently to the time between Barack Obama’s inauguration as the 44th President of the United States, on the final crest of the “politics of hope,” and his definitive exploitation of the “politics of fear” to get a near trillion-dollar stimulus package through the U.S. Senate.
In an article he at least limned and signed, for the Washington Post on Thursday, Mr. Obama supplied a memorable quote: “This recession might linger for years. Our economy will lose five million more jobs. Unemployment will approach double digits. Our nation will sink deeper into a crisis that, at some point, we may not be able to reverse.” Compare, if you will, another Democrat president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who took office under considerably grimmer circumstances—at the very bottom of the Depression—in 1933: “This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” This is from the first paragraph of an inaugural address worth rereading after 76 years, to note the grave, explicitly religious tone in which he addressed his countrymen. Roosevelt was not a cheap optimist, promising any kind of quick legislative fix; on the contrary he thanks God that America’s losses “concern only material things.” Note further his explicit indictment of the policies he associates with “unscrupulous money changers”: “Faced by failure of credit they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.” Nor did Roosevelt change his tone two weeks later. For all retrospective disagreements with that genuinely great president, I will not confuse the liberalism that animated his judgment, with the sound-bite gliberalism that characterizes his current successor.
While President Obama threatens, Democrats and Republicans tussle in the Senate over tankerloads of irrelevant pork. It is massive beyond reliable quantification. It consists on the one side of panic money thrown at ill-considered public works projects; and on the other of tax breaks for various vested interests. It would seem that for every $100 billion of controversial bailout, another $100 billion of “sweeteners” must be added to make the medicine go down.
When he turns to the American people, the president or his pollsters will only see lines of division already written through Congress. Mr. Obama demands non-partisanship to get the bill passed. But opposition to the bill is huge, growing, and itself essentially non-partisan. Americans themselves are deeply troubled by the proposal that they should mortgage their children’s future for a constantly growing bailout scheme that must, of necessity, reward the undeserving. For to the American mind, as it has been through generations when the U.S. was rising, no one is “entitled” to government handouts, regardless of the fiscal weather.
If Republicans alone were resisting the bill, it would be passed with the help of the line-whips who were operating in the House of Representatives. Mr. Obama’s political problem is not with the Senate Republicans, but with “blue dog Democrats” who represent the centre of the left/right political dial. They do not like the stimulus bill, for the plausible reason that their affiliation with it could lead to their annihilation at the next election.
Where the blue dogs come from, the bill already stinks and the smell is getting worse. There is not much point in larding it any deeper.
Mind, I am not entirely against fire-and-brimstone fear mongering. Where it can be effective, it should be employed: to shock people into more prudent behaviour. But it is a moral weapon, which requires some moral authority to wield. To try to frighten people, as President Obama has done, with the consequences to them if someone else does not pass a profligate spending bill, is an entirely illegitimate use of the weapon from every conceivable point of view. It is not a moral warning, but a shameful pressuring tactic.
More practically, it is wasteful. The new president is expending his political capital even faster than he is proposing to empty the U.S. Treasury.