Precisely what course Obama and his economic team should chart is the subject of tremendous debate among economists and policymakers, with a number of voices, including on his own team, increasingly cautioning against caution. Yet the dilemmas Obama faces are not just in what he does but in what he says and does not say, because what he says as he tries to lead the nation out of the first Depression of the 21st Century will influence not only its course but the likelihood that the ideology that produced it will rise again from its ashes--or that from this national debacle will emerge a new view of the role of government to replace the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt and the Raw Deal of George W. Bush.
As a number of commentators have recently noted, the events of the last few months should have etched indelibly on the national psyche the conclusion that laissez faire, robber-baron capitalism--the Great Idea of the conservative movement--has proven a dreadful failure. We have painfully relearned in this century the lesson our grandparents learned during the Great Depression of the last, that the appropriate alternative to an oppressive state is not a negligent, impotent one.
George W. Bush and the Republican Congress did not abandon the legacy of Ronald Reagan. They fulfilled it. Reagan branded in the popular imagination the notion that "government is the problem, not the solution." Bush and his ideological counterparts in Congress took that philosophy to its logical conclusion, dismantling as many of the safeguards and safety nets put in place since the New Deal as they had time to dismantle. They preached the gospel of unregulated greed, arguing that what's good for unscrupulous lenders and multinationals en route to Dubai is good for America, and we all paid the price. That should be the Great Lesson of the first Great Depression of the 21st Century.
But lessons require study, and narratives require telling. In the hands of a powerful story-teller, a powerful story can last for generations. Reagan's branding of government as an evil--and not a necessary one--has flourished for 30 years, and it continues to flourish in the pronouncements of Republican Senators and Congressmen--McConnell, Shelby, Corker, Boehner, Cornyn, to name a few--who have suddenly re-found religion, as they proclaim that deficits (unless created for the benefit of the few) are a terrible burden on our children and grandchildren. Precisely the same people who squandered the Clinton legacy of balanced budgets and surpluses as far as the eye could see, leaving us eight years later with an economy in tatters and a single-year budget deficit above a trillion dollars, are now warning of the dangers of "tax and spend" and preaching the fiscal conservatism they abandoned when their friends were the beneficiaries of their economic philosophy of borrow-and-spend.
Today, at least for now, their message is less resonant with the public than the message of "do something--anything." And perhaps Americans will draw the causal connection between government investment and intervention and the economic relief that hopefully will follow within two, three, four, or however many years it takes for the Obama team and some good luck to get us out of this mess.
But perhaps they won't.
Americans aren't supporting the new president-in-transition in unprecedented numbers because they've studied Keynes. They're supporting him because they're frightened and want to try something new, and he isn't and will. Six in ten Americans had no idea after the election what Obama intended to do about the economy but they thought it would work. No one has really explained to the average American, in language that is clear and compelling, why deficits are sometimes a good thing and sometimes a bad thing--why they were a bad thing when they went to subsidize tax cuts to the super-rich and a war that was apparently important enough to pay for with our children's money but not if it involved our own economic sacrifice, and why deficit spending and government investment and jobs creation are essential when the economy is caught in a downward spiral.
Despite the dramatic economic downturn of the last four months, the concept of "government as the problem" remains firmly embedded in the minds of most voters. It will take not only an active and effective government that leads us out of the Depression but a consistent narrative over many years to change what most Americans unconsciously hold to be self-evident.
And herein lies one of the great dilemmas facing Obama as the communicator-in-chief. He ran as both the candidate of change and the candidate of pragmatism and bipartisan action. So does he tell the story of our economic collapse and what we need to do about it without mentioning that someone actually caused it? Or does he do what Roosevelt did, and make clear from the start that the Depression we are facing is not a matter of impersonal, natural business cycles that wax and wane but a man-made disaster, and that an actively created disaster requires an actively created response?
Does he reach across the aisle to the people who engineered the problems that bedevil him, who want none of his bipartisan pragmatism and would rather use federal loans to GM and Chrysler as an opportunity to continue the Reagan-Bush policies of union bashing and union busting, blaming failures of management, a crisis of consumer confidence, and a credit crunch that makes the purchase of any new car (including a Toyota) impossible, on greedy union workers? Or does he ask Boehner and Shelby whether they truly believe we should give up American-quality jobs with hard-won American benefits and environmental and safety standards and embrace as our model the wages and benefits of Chinese, Indian, and Mexican workers?
I do not ask these questions because I have the answers. I ask them because they need to be asked. FDR offered a forward-looking message of hope and fortitude and economic experimentation until we had it right, but he ran against Hoover even when Hoover was no longer on the ballot. He understood that the ideology that had led to the Great Depression was a formidable foe that would not go away easily, and he built a new consensus against that foe that lasted 50 years. If Obama wants to stand above the fray (at least as long as the Republicans in Congress will let him), he may do well to anoint a surrogate with enough authority and ability to grab the headlines (e.g., Joe Biden, who has both the gravitas and the sense of humor to respond to the likes of Boehner and McConnell) to remind voters over and over what they need to know and remember: that it took a group of wrong-headed, self-serving ideologues several years to destroy our economy, and that their radical conservative ideology is the problem, not the solution.