Diana West

"That we are in the midst of a crisis is well understood," President Barack Obama told the nation on Inauguration Day. The president can say that again, and no doubt will. But the "crisis" itself is anything but well understood.

What we know for certain is that on or around Sept. 18 -- oddly enough, as AIM's Cliff Kincaid has pointed out, during the polling high point of John McCain's pathetic presidential campaign -- Bush administration Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson convinced former President Bush to abandon all remaining free-market principles and come up with hundreds of billions of bailout dollars from Congress. This not only saved Paulson's "buddies on Wall Street," as CNN's Lou Dobbs put it (not to mention Chinese interests, as Kincaid notes), but also endowed George W. Bush with the unexpected legacy of kick-starting the socialization of the U.S. economy.

We have been in "crisis" ever since, and, despite massive government interventions, markets remain what they call volatile. But mysteries abound. Maybe chief among them a set of September statements by Bush about the possibility that the point of crisis had been precipitated by what he called "illegal market manipulation." As Kincaid asks, "By whom or what? The President didn't say."

Nor has anyone else. This has left tantalizing questions hanging. Alas, curiosity seems to be a casualty of the crisis -- or at least of our media-churned crisis mode, a condition that more closely resembles panic.

Still, such a state gets results, which is surely what White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel meant in November when he said, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste." Such panic passed the Bush bailout bills in October, it boosted Obama's presidential campaign in November, and it now promises to drive forward Obama's colossal expansion of the Bush bailout strategy, lately euphemistically rebranded as the new president's "American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan."

A question for Obama, then, becomes, how does he maintain a national state of lightly constrained but motivating hysteria? Talking about it helps, as he did on Inauguration Day. The new president didn't simply note our understanding of being "in the midst of a crisis." No, he actually compared our current economic woes to the extremis and near-dissolution of the nascent nation in the its very first winter of war "when," as Barack Obama put it, "the snow was stained with blood." Your 401K plan has taken a hit? Welcome to Valley Forge.

Diana West

Diana West is the author of American Betrayal: The Secret Assault on Our Nation's Character (St. Martin's Press, 2013), and The Death of the Grown-Up: How America's Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization (St. Martin's Press, 2007).