27 January 2009

What A Difference A Week Makes

Seven days and little of the euphoria has dissipated. Despite the predictions of cynics and McCain supporters, both of whom I number among my friends, President Obama has thus far done little to disappoint and a great deal to enthrall.

I think what impresses people most - even among those who had their doubts about Obama or did not support him at all - is the dramatic difference, visible from Day One, between his Presidency and that of his predecessor. Whether you agree with the new President or not, it's hard not to appreciate hearing thoughts and views expressed in clear, coherent sentences and paragraphs. And again whether you agree with him or not, it's comforting to feel that he has given some serious reflection to what he's saying and doing, and that this whole being President thing is not just some frat boy lark to be skated through on the strength of a few slogans and a lot of jokes.

Obama has let me down in one way, at least potentially: my initial understanding of the giant $825 billion stimulus bill leads me to believe that a large part of this immense deficit we're running up will be relatively ineffective or downright squandered. Perhaps he needs to deliver hundreds of billions of tax cuts in order to get the Republicans on side (not that it seems to be working, as they seem to be continuing to spout the same ideological gobbledygook that got us into this mess in the first place), but even the spending portion of the stimulus package seems too heavily geared toward old-fashioned giveaways and social spending and way too little toward the genuine job-producing infrastructure investment we were promised.

Personally, I don't see much benefit to the proposed tax cuts. Sure, it'll be nice for people to have an extra $500 or $1,000 in their pockets, but the effect this will have on the economy is negligible. In the first place, the people who will benefit most from it are those who are still employed rather than those who have lost their jobs and are already paying few if any taxes. Secondly, the amount of money it gives back is chump change, relatively speaking, in that most people are not going to use it to rush out and buy a new wide screen TV and thus jump start the (Asian) economy, they're going to put it toward a mortgage or rent payment, or pay down some of their credit card bill. Laudable actions, sure, but about as likely to have any lasting effect on the economy as those few hundred billion in public funds already poured down the banking system rathole.

Remember, it was George Bush's lunatic idea (supported by many Democrats, to be fair) that we could massively increase spending, especially military spending, while massively cutting taxes, that put this country so far in debt that national bankruptcy is not completely out of the realm of possibility. The logic of cutting taxes still further at a time when we are running up bills the size of which are completely unprecedented in the history of the Republic has thus far managed to elude me.

But let's leave that alone for the time being and question instead why more of the $450 billion not being devoted to tax cuts isn't being spent on the major - and long overdue projects - that will not only create jobs, but also lay the foundations for future development and growth once this financial crisis is past. Things like high speed rail linking our major cities, a 21st century broadband network for the entire country, construction of new schools, rehabilitation and re-use of foreclosed and abandoned housing. Yes, there are provisions for all of this within the bill, but pathetically small provisions in the overall scale of things. And, one has to wonder, once this much money has been spent, where on earth will any money at all be found to rework the health care system or pursue many of the other laudable aims of the Obama administration?

But one hesitates to question or criticize too much, because Obama is riding such a wave of good will and good faith that it seems preferable to assume that he knows what he's doing and that the answers to these and other questions will come in good time. And certainly he's barely put a foot wrong anywhere else during his first week in office: the swiftness with which he's moved to reverse some of the more idiotic and self-destructive Bush executive orders impresses, but so too do his diplomatic skills. Beginning with his inaugural address overture to the Muslim world, and continuing with yesterday's interview with Al Arabiya, he has taken the first vital steps toward repairing the immense damage done by the Bush administration's bull-in-a-china-shop approach to international relations.

And not content with reaching out to one set of seemingly intractable foes, today he went marching into a still more pernicious lion's den, the Republican Congressional caucus. I halfway expect him to show up at Guantanamo one of these days to personally interview the prisoners there and convince them that America's not their enemy after all.

Dramatic gestures aside, though, perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the Obama administration thus far is the feeling, so long absent, that someone both competent and caring is in charge. This may be pure delusion on my part, of course, and for all I know, Obama could be every bit as confused and frightened as I am by the magnitude of the problems facing our country and the world today. But if he is, he's doing an outstanding job of not showing it, and since politics, like finance and virtually everything else, ultimately involves the ability to inspire confidence in others and oneself, I'd say he's off to an outstanding start.

1 comment:

jnine said...

It's nice to see someone who wants the job and not just the title.