Friday, March 20, 2009

You're Damned Right I'm Angry

I greatly admire Peggy Noonan. And since I read her book What I Saw At The Revolution, has been one of my favorite political authors. But my friends can vouch for the fact that I thought she went a little nuts during the election. I honestly thought something had snapped, the way she was desperate for optimism wherever she could find it. And, based on her political principles, could not believe that she seemed to be endorsing Obama—fawning over him may be more accurate. I was even more shocked, when, the day after the election, she admitted on Oprah that she had in fact voted for McCain.

But now, she's joined the steady flow of columnists with buyer's remorse. Maybe not as openly as Chris Buckley or David Brooks (who has since at least partially rescinded). But she does have this to say:
The president seems everywhere and nowhere, not fully focused on the matters at hand. He's trying to keep up with the news cycle with less and less to say. "I am angry" about AIG's bonuses. The administration seems buffeted, ad hoc. Policy seems makeshift, provisional. James K. Galbraith captures some of this in The Washington Monthly: "The president has an economic program. But there is, so far, no clear statement of the thinking behind the program."
This, dear friends, is why I had concerns about Obama from the start. This is why many of us had concerns from the start.

Because you know what I don't want to believe, but find myself concluding more and more often? That their policy is ad hoc, is merely reactive. I'm not sure that Obama believes in any particular ideology or way forward. I think he has some basic liberal reflexes, but has never tested or challenged those beliefs to find a core understanding of the world around him. As a result, he picks and chooses from the options presented based on what "makes sense" at the time. This is not the way to lead a country, and certainly not the way to lead a country out of an economic quagmire. In fact, this is the way to take what may have otherwise been a minor recession and turn it into an enduring crisis—not in the sense the media is using it currently, but in the Jimmy Carter sense.

There's nothing wrong with hope. And I'm not asking the President to claim that he knows how to fix the mess that he deepens by the day. But the American people do not need the leader described above, because he's not leading. Heck, we'd be better off with a President running into walls with his proposals. As things stand now, we have a President paralyzed by reactivity, resulting in a public paralyzed by not knowing what's coming next. That stokes fear, and anger. So the President responds to that, hesitantly, and the cycle starts again.

Each reaction seems to be scarier than the last! A 90% tax on bonuses to TARP employees? Are you kidding me?? This is punitive. This is wrong. This is a posse led from Capitol Hill.

Before that bill passed, the WSJ has some comments on that posse dynamic, with an important historical note:
This is all too much even for Rep. Charlie Rangel, the House's chief tax writer, who says the tax code shouldn't be deployed as a "political weapon." He's right. AIG's managers may be this week's political target of choice, but the message to every banker in America, indeed every business in America, is that you could be next. At least we haven't yet seen the resolution that was proposed in the English parliament, in 1720 in the aftermath of the South Sea bubble, that bankers be tied in sacks filled with snakes and tipped into the Thames. But it's still early days.
And the people are following their leaders:
Now these executives are toxic, and those communities are rattled and divided. Private security guards have been stationed outside their houses, and sometimes the local police drive by. A.I.G. employees at the company’s office tower in Lower Manhattan were told to avoid leaving the building while a demonstration was going on outside. The memo also advised them to avoid displaying company-issued ID cards when they left the office and to abandon tote bags or other items with the A.I.G. logo.

One A.I.G. executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared the consequences of identifying himself, said many workers felt demonized and betrayed. “It is as bad if not worse than McCarthyism,” he said. Everyone has sacrificed the employees of A.I.G.’s financial products division, he said, “for their own political agenda.”

The public’s anger, he said, “is coming from bad facts as a result of someone else’s agenda — or just bad facts period.” Instead, he said, the so-called bonuses were in fact just payments that had been promised long ago to workers, including technical and administrative assistants.

A.I.G. employees are not the only ones seeking protection: An executive at Merrill Lynch, where bonuses have also come under fire, said that some employees had asked whether the firm would cover the cost of private security for them.
Reading that makes me seethe.

If this is Obama's America status-post Hope & Change, then I fear what comes next. To update a classic:
In America, they came first for the Bankers. And I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Banker;
And then they came for the business executives. And I didn't speak up because I wasn't a business executive.
And then . . . they came for me . . . And by that time there was no one left to speak up.
I'm not trying to invoke Godwin's Law against myself here, and I certainly don't mean to compare any of this to Nazi Germany. But we are living through a witch hunt. And witch hunts always need new people to blame when the first crop of targets is exhausted.

So who's next on the chopping block?

Don't believe me? Think I'm taking it too far? Pissed at what A.I.G. has done to the economy and think that they deserve to catch a little flak for it? Well here's you don't know:
The handful of souls who championed the firm's now-infamous credit-default swaps are, by nearly every account, long since departed. Those left behind to clean up the mess, the majority of whom never lost a dime for AIG, now feel they have been sold out by their Congress and their president.

"They've chosen to throw us under the bus," said a Financial Products executive, one of several who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals. "They have vilified us."

They say what is missing from this week's hysteria is perspective. The very handsome retention payments they received over the past week were set in motion early last year when the firm's former president, Joe Cassano, was on his way out the door. Financial Products was already running into trouble on its risky credit bets, and the year ahead looked grim. People were weighing offers from other firms, and AIG executives feared that too many departures could lead to disaster.

So AIG stepped in with an offer to employees of Financial Products. Work through all of 2008, and you'd get a lump payment in March 2009. Stick around through 2009, and you'll get paid through 2010. Almost all other forms of compensation -- bonuses, deferred payments and the like -- have vanished.
That's right! These people we're burning in effigy aren't even the ones responsible. They are the ones that have been retained to try and clean up the mess. This is like arresting the fire department for arson while they try to put out the fire!

And our government is leading the mob.

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The Politico offers an alternative scenario: Obama is having trouble communicating.

I don't buy it. Actions speak louder than words, and I've followed his actions pretty closely in the past few days. Obama isn't having trouble explaining what he's doing or why he's doing it; he's stumbling over each step he takes. The Politico:
It was brilliant communications skills that carried Obama to the presidency, with a national campaign built on the strength of his personal story and the clarity of his promise to transform politics. On the rare occasions when he was thrown on the defensive, he quickly turned problems into opportunities and regained control of his public image.

What’s different now? The polished phrases and unflappable delivery haven’t gone away. His prime-time news conference and speech to Congress drew the usual praise.
What's changed is that the man is now being asked to lead, not just talk about leading. And he never had a plan for that. He was not ready for it. And we're reaping the whirlwind now.

God help us.

But read The Politico's entire take on his communication problems, and see if you don't notice the common thread that I do. It could be that the authors are right, and he's running into a variety of issues (mixed messages, too cool for his own good, hiding the bodies, an off-key chorus). But think on this as you're reading it: wouldn't a man who was unqualified for his job, in over his head, and unsure what to do next be facing exactly the same "communication" issues?

Doesn't this kind of political move suggest the same thing?

Maybe Jennifer Rubin has a point. She says it's the failure of the premise of the Obama administration:
Obama’s mantra about collecting the “best and the brightest” for his cabinet was not just puffery. It was a message: we’re smarter than those fools who messed up the economy. We have the answers and can devise exquisitely refined solutions, with thousands of interconnected parts, to do what the “broken” free market system cannot. But how credible is that? [...]

The lesson from AIG is that the entire premise of the Obama administration — we know better — is fundamentally flawed. The Obama team can’t effectively manage a single troubled company without getting itself and the whole country tied up in knots. The notion that we should invest the federal government with authority to control vast swatches of the economy can now be seen for what it is: madness. We should consider ourselves lucky that the public is getting a glimpse of its government in action on a (relatively speaking) low-dollar item of limited consequences.
I think that dovetails nicely with what I said above: without an ideology, without a focused plan, Obama ran on the idea of "smarts." And when you don't know anything about the subject at hand, it doesn't matter how "smart" you are—you're going to blunder your way through it for a while, at the very least.

I can't imagine what comes next.

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