In the Iliad, the father of Achilles counsels him to be “both a speaker of words and a doer of deeds.” At least since his electrifying 2008 appearance before 200,000 in Berlin, there has been a tendency to credit Barack Obama for the words and to doubt him on the deeds. Across the Media-and-Beltway bio-feedback loop, that doubt has now intensified. Except in this world of instant analysis, of outcomes proclaimed before events unfold, this skepticism would represent an inexplicably premature verdict on a President who is on the verge of overseeing economic revival and the historic achievement of national health reform.
The gloom comes from the usual suspects—and some unlikely ones. On “Meet the Press,” the Rev. Rick Warren, the self-improvement guru and, apparently, now an economic expert, said that while he wouldn’t criticize the president who invited him to pray at the inauguration, he thought there was “too much on the agenda.” Presumably Warren was echoing the advice from other quarters that Obama should focus on employment and postpone health reform. This counsel is proffered without any recognition that soaring health costs and the denial of care constitute not only social injustice, but a fundamental threat to recovery.
The administration surely will do more to prime the economic pump—not with a single grand gesture, but with a series of steps in next year’s budget, which is filibuster-proof under Senate rules. But if the president followed the naked logic of Warren and his ilk, Republicans in Congress would simply oppose whatever major new economic initiative Obama proposed; that’s their chosen political strategy, indeed their only one.
The argument that the fight for health reform impedes recovery, superficially plausible and intermittently echoed since the first weeks of the Obama presidency, is usually invoked to advance a not-so-hidden ideological purpose. Thus the conservative columnist Michael Barone cries crocodile tears while warning that we can’t afford the President’s health plan in the face of rising deficits. Of course, Barone is against reform in any event; he would denounce it even in the midst of federal surplus. Similarly, Indiana Senator Richard Lugar said this weekend that Senators lack the time to discuss a “war tax” to finance operations in Afghanistan because they will be consumed by the health debate. But there would be plenty of time if Lugar and his Republican colleagues stopped their delaying tactics and let the Senate vote promptly on health reform. After that, they could turn to debating a war tax—which most Republicans would predictably filibuster.
All this is skywriting; it will fade after health legislation passes and economic growth begins to generate new jobs. Many of today’s critics will then conveniently forget what they write or say now.
This week, the skywriting acquired a pseudo-intellectual gloss courtesy of historian Niall Ferguson’s Newsweek cover story. The Spanish Empire, the Ottoman Empire, even the “last English-speaking empire” all fell, Ferguson maintained, due to “steep debt…and high spending.”
But Ferguson’s case for causality reeks of ideological preconception.
The Spanish encountered the small unpleasantness of an invading armada smashed against the rocky coasts of the British isles.
The creaky Ottoman theocracy was called “the sick man of Europe” not only for its fiscal peril, but because it had lost a series of disastrous wars and vast swaths of its own territory. A hollow relic facing mounting internal opposition, it finally collapsed after picking the wrong side in World War I.
As for the British, it was not budgetary improvidence, but Winston Churchill’s stubborn insistence on returning to the gold standard -- during his failed tenure as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1920s -- that brought on mass unemployment and a general strike, contributing to the Great Depression. In retrospect, Churchill regarded this as a profound mistake.
Finally, Britain’s failure to rearm in the 1930s was less a matter of wallet than of will among a generation determined not to relive the carnage of the Great War. The country was left with a massive debt in 1945 as the price of its survival. But it had little to do with Gandhi and Nehru in India or Jomo Kenyatta in Africa dismembering the empire—unless you hold the benighted view that a wealthier Britain could and should have fought an eternal battle to preserve colonial rule.
Ferguson’s pop history is a caricature of past empire, America’s present circumstances, and this president’s policies.
The cliché about Obama, the non-doer of deeds, was trotted out during his supposedly unproductive meetings with the Russian and Chinese leadership in Asia. Then last week came the news that both Russia and China are increasingly aligning themselves with the U.S. to pressure Iran on the nuclear issue—and that China has moved on climate change, as well. Diplomacy and deeds—like Obama’s much-maligned decision to recalibrate missile defense in Europe and reduce tensions with Moscow – are achieving their desired ends.
Yet perhaps Obama’s diplomacy was too quiet. What happened to his charisma? asked Maureen Dowd in The New York Times; why can’t he “connect” like Sarah Palin?
This is the last improbable chapter in a storyline that’s about to run out. The Obama resurgence is almost here—in perception as well as deeds. But I’m rooting for Palin to win the GOP nomination anyway. Then in 2012, we’ll see who’s really all talk.