“From Lincoln to Obama,” CNN headlined one of its stories during the early days of euphoria over the new president. Obama encouraged the comparison, tossing out such modest asides as Lincoln made “my story possible.” For others, Obama loomed even larger than Lincoln. He was a “Lightworker,” as San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford put it in 2008, “that rare kind of attuned being who has the ability to lead us not merely to new foreign policies or health care plans or whatnot, but who can actually help usher in a new way of being on the planet, of relating and connecting and engaging with this bizarre earthly experiment.”
Now that the Lightworker has fallen to earth and the glorious new way of being on the planet turns out to be a lowered credit rating, some of his prominent supporters have fallen silent or resentful. Heady Lincoln comparisons have given way to Carter comparisons, sotto voce: “We are watching him turn into Jimmy Carter right before our eyes,” an anonymous Democratic Senator said to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd.
To the Richard Cohens of the press, he is no longer cool but cold. It is now safe for them to say that he lacks any special gift for “leadership.” Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank acidly observed about his speech on Monday, “He delivered his statement on the economy beneath a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, but that was as close as he came to forceful leadership.”
While they decry the “obstructionism” of the Tea Party, they condemn Obama for not displaying obstructionism of his own. The issue of his inexperience has once again resurfaced, at the very moment this week’s loss of SEALs in Afghanistan dims the accomplishment of killing Bin Laden that had put, so Obama thought, concerns about his inexperience to rest.
A turbulent stock market has added to his troubles. His speech on Monday about the credit downgrade accelerated rather than arrested the slide. His protestation that the U.S. “always will be a triple-A country” was hardly reassuring, a line to be remembered only for its feebleness. He has managed to make America sound like a minor league team.
Obama considers the credit downgrade a consequence not of the debt itself but of the debate about the debt. Yet the Treasury Department’s triumphant discovery of a $2 trillion “error” in the math of Standard & Poor’s belies that analysis: Were the size of the debt not the fundamental reason for the downgrade, why would that error even matter? Moreover, if “political dysfunction” had the power to scare Standard & Poor’s into lowering the credit rating, why did Obama and company stoke that fear by describing the Tea Party as a collection of hostage-takers and terrorists? Why didn’t White House officials, as sudden experts on the rationale of S&P’s scoring, anticipate the possibility of a “political dysfunction” downgrade and tone down their rhetoric?
The “Tea Party downgrade” claim is the sort of desperately superficial explanation one would expect from pols who consider the appearance of solving problems to be more crucial than the reality of solving them. Blaming the Tea Party for America’s lower credit rating is like “blaming firemen for fires,” as Senator Rand Paul puts it.
Yet to the chattering class, America’s fundamental weakness is not staggering debt but the absence of an easygoing style of bipartisanship that accepts it. “We can always print money” to pay our debts, as Alan Greenspan says. The critics of the Tea Party didn’t want a dime cut from the budget and are in fact calling for a resurgence of Keynesianism — a “massive second stimulus” and so on. “Jobs,” not debt, is the issue, they say, and government hiring is the answer. Perhaps if Obama added a few more trillions of dollars to the debt through a second stimulus America could one day enjoy the low unemployment rates once seen in Communist countries.
It used to be just a metaphor to say America is going the way of Rome. Now it can be said literally, as the U.S. moves toward European-levels of debt. As promised by his starry-eyed supporters, Obama has indeed ushered in a new America, but it looks more and more like the legacy of a lightweight than a “Lightworker.”