A Little Too Peevish and Panicky

Carol Platt Liebau
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Posted: Feb 09, 2009 10:04 PM
President Obama's press conference (transcript here) had to be an enormous disappointment to anyone who had really believed his hype about bringing "hope" and "change" to Washington.

First, we were all told that he was brilliant.  And that he was always going to be frank with us.  If that's the case, explain this statement tonight:

[I]f you delay acting on an economy of this severity, then you potentially create a negative spiral that becomes much more difficult for us to get out of.

We saw this happen in Japan in the 1990s, where they did not act boldly and swiftly enough and, as a consequence, they suffered what was called the lost decade, where essentially, for the entire '90s, they did not see any significant economic growth.

Then take a look at this story in the New York Times from this weekend, discussing the real problem with Japan's lost decade -- it wasn't that the action came too late, it was that it was the wrong kind of action:

In the end, say economists, it was not public works but an expensive cleanup of the debt-ridden banking system, combined with growing exports to China and the United States, that brought a close to Japan’s Lost Decade. This has led many to conclude that spending did little more than sink Japan deeply into debt, leaving an enormous tax burden for future generations. . . 

Among ordinary Japanese, the spending is widely disparaged for having turned the nation into a public-works-based welfare state and making regional economies dependent on Tokyo for jobs.

In other words, if one is going to invoke Japan's Lost Decade, perhaps it shouldn't be in the context of arguing that pork barrel spending is the way to leave America healthier and stronger in the long run.

Next, his characterization of the bill's opponents was as dishonest as it was insulting:

Some of the criticisms really are with the basic idea that government should intervene at all in this moment of crisis. Now, you have some people, very sincere, who philosophically just think the government has no business interfering in the marketplace. And, in fact, there are several who've suggested that FDR was wrong to interfere back in the New Deal. They're fighting battles that I thought were resolved a pretty long time ago.

It's not clear to me who, exactly, has said that the government shouldn't do anything.  The debate, rather, is how the government most effectively can act.  And some critics believe that a big pork barrel spending orgy -- putting us a trillion dollars into debt -- to pay off Democrat interest groups isn't going to solve this crisis.  If Obama knows critics who believe that government shouldn't "interfere" at all -- even by slashing capital gains tax rates, for example -- he should name names.

I've already argued that President Obama's much-touted "bipartisanship" is more about style than substance.  With his words tonight, there isn't even a bipartisan style.  The basic building block of bipartisanship is having enough respect for one's opponents at least to characterize their objections honestly -- rather than setting up straw men to caricature and dismiss.  He failed even that basic test -- along with the more basic one of explaining how the bill he's supporting (1) will actually stimulate the economy and save jobs; and (2) cannot be passed without some of the laughable examples of waste.

Finally, note the peevish and almost panicky tone of the President's statements.  Can anyone imagine the screaming on the left -- and on the part of the press -- had President Bush argued in such cataclysmic terms for the Patriot Act, for example, and then dismissed opponents in a fashion similar to the way President Obama did tonight (perhaps, for example, by describing those who opposed his approach to fighting the war on terror as being "very sincere" in their beliefs that America shouldn't defend itself against terrorists)?

Part of the President's job is to calm fears, not stir them up.  If there are real dangers to be confronted, of course it's his job to point them out.  But the idea that "catastrophe" will ensue without immediate passage of a bill that even some Democrats deem a failure is, well, just a joke.  And a sad one.