So How Will He Do?
Fans of our new president perhaps imagine us non-fans as scowling through the day today, embittered by all that hope and rueful of the change to come. Me, I’m just going about my business, as I have on every inauguration day within my lifetime. That said, Andrew Stuttaford’s suggestion is an attractive one, although I can’t afford any of the Obama-branded merchandise that he subsequently lists:
It’s better, I think, to borrow a few ideas from the Orange Alternative (Pomaranczowa Alternatywa). Fearless prankster surrealists of the Polish sort-of-Left from the 1980s, they used to taunt their country’s crumbling Communist regime with cheers, not jeers, their specialty being sporadic displays of unsettlingly enthusiastic loyalty. These included a reenactment of the storming of the Winter Palace and a procession through the streets of Warsaw by 4,000 people chanting their love for Lenin. Now, I would not want to compare Obama with that other community organizer—no, not for a second!—but the cult of personality now surrounding our next president suggests that hosting an Orange Alternative inauguration dinner would be a perfect counterpoint to the pomp, sincerity, and cynicism on display in Washington. It’ll also be an ideal opportunity to treat friends of all political persuasions to a confused, confusing, and almost certainly annoying celebration that can be read, as Obama has said about himself, in any way they like.
With a little more notice, a Long Live the King party might have been a pleasant way to spend this evening. Indeed, we could have begun with an extolment of a newly introduced bill from U.S. Representative Jose Serrano (D, NY) to repeal the 22nd Amendment and enable a longer reign for the One. Several party games involving the national debt and antes of coolness also come to mind.
The levity does raise a serious (if unanswerable) question, though: How is President Obama likely to do? The variables are infinite, and the wildcards too many to count. Not the least of the unknowns is what Obama will do, because his past is like a novelist’s thumbnail sketch of a character. He’s all personality.
The economy will be the irreducible determinant of his level of success, and there’s little a president can actually do to affect it. Within the degree of economic influence that the government can be said to have, the general approach suggested by Obama and the Democrat Congress (with complicit Republicans, to be sure) does not give reason for optimism.
In order to escape recession and surpass stagnation, the economy requires an open field. That running room can emerge with a new technology that creates whole new industries. It can open up literally as new space to fill. Innovative financial tools can create economic activities as if out of air (or, as was the case with the recent bubble, make future income the open field). Where the government has built artificial walls, knocking them down in a spell of deregulation can free the economy. A newly opened national market can bring a burst in demand.
All of these possibilities are of like form — involving the creation, development, or discovery of voids that the economy can surge to fill — and none look likely in the near future. Put what hopes as we may into the everything-green movement, nothing new is being created; energy is still energy, and more cost-effective ways exist for creating it. The emphasis on government spending and “shovel ready” projects as stimulus may run the economic engine, but with nowhere to go, and eventually we’ll run out of our borrowed fuel. New financial tools and deregulation are probably out of the question in the short term. And the international market is fraught with nations acting in their own interests.
Dealing with those foreign bodies is another variable. I believe the major players will postpone testing and challenging Obama for a while — not because the world sincerely wishes to see if the new U.S. president will govern in a way more to their liking than his predecessor, but out of strategy. If he takes his foot off the accelerator in the War on Terror, terrorist groups won’t attempt an immediate strike; they’ll regroup and rebuild, taking into account lessons learned since 9/11. Foreign powers such as Russia and China will want to see how sympathetic and manipulable Obama is. They’ll begin to test him in ways so minor that it won’t be immediately apparent that that’s what they’re doing.
In the meantime, once the elation of a new presidential face subsides, domestic turmoil may simmer as economic frustration spills over into the culture war. The left has its wish list out, and with Democrats controlling two branches of government, it will expect results. For its part, the right is arguably enlivened when on the defensive.
So in all of this, how will President Obama do? I won’t hazard to say, but I will offer a three-part generality: Liberalism is a recipe for disaster; centrism is an inadequate approach when the economy requires inspiration, foreign affairs require a set jaw, and the sides refuse to let social issues balance; and powerful institutions have installed constructs to make conservatism a very painful option. Obama will probably shoot for a leftish centrism until circumstances knock over the fulcrum.
The real change, that brought by the tectonic forces of history, could be serendipitous or calamitous. Which it will be and how the president will react are questions sure to bring silence to the party.