Winter setting in
That President Obama now faces the greatest challenges of any President since FDR or Lincoln is becoming generally acknowledged. Within another year, I predict, it will have become clear that he actually has more to deal with than either of them did--at least with respect to the range of problems he must try to solve. Although Lincoln had to fight put down a huge domestic rebellion, he did not at the same time face an economic crisis or a foreign war--the latter thanks partly to his own clever diplomacy. Roosevelt had first to deal with economic panic and crisis, and then, beginning six years later, with the onset of world war. President Obama already faces looming catastrophes on three fronts: economic, domestic political, and foreign. Getting on top of them all will require extraordinary skill and a lot of help.
On the economic front, as I have mentioned before, Obama does not enjoy FDR's freedom of action for several reasons--the most important being that we are nowhere near the bottom of the economic crisis. Things simply could not have gotten much worse in early 1933 when FDR took office, and that worked to his advantage in important ways. First, partly because the Republican Party of the 1930s still included a good many progressives, he had some genuine bipartisan support. Secondly, the nation's economic leadership was too desperate to argue over any of what he felt it necesary to do, especially during the first few years. And thirdly, no one could question the need for fundamental regulatory reform. Obama on the other hand faces an economic establishment, especially in the financial community, that remains dedicated to business as usual. Today's New York Times includes an appalling article about the profit and loss statements the major banks are issuing, all showing surprising profits over the last quarter. They have reached this result, it seems, by claiming as a profit the fall in the value of their debt--a strategy which, the Times notes, is perfectly legal. That sleight-of-hand accounted for more than the entire reported profit of the bank. This suggests part of the reason why it has proven so difficult realisticall to assess the net worth of the major banks: no one has known, or cared, what their real balance sheets look like for quite a few years now. Paul Krugman called a couple of weeks ago for a return to "boring banking," the well-regulated kind that gave us several decades of steady postwar economic growth. The bankers themselves have not gotten the message. A second, much larger question--exactly what kind of enterprises are going to provide work for millions of unemployed Americans now?--is only starting to be addressed.
The political crisis is more akin to that faced by Lincoln, except that this time the Union is not breaking up. I do not believe there has ever been a time in American history when the opposition party has been so monolithic. There were far more Union Democrats in the North and Border states, and perhaps even more Union men in certain parts of the South, than there are elected Republicans willing, today, to depart from the party line of total opposition. A substantial portion of the population has concluded that our new President threatens all of America's most fundamental values, and they can draw emotional sustenance 24 hours a day from Fox News and from talk radio. Texas Governor Rick Perry's flirtation with secession last week is undoubtedly a portent of things to come, although the red states should do a little math before they push it any further. According to the most recent figures (2005)from the Northeast-Midwest Institute, 33 of the 50 states get more from the federal government than they pay in. Texas is not one of them--it just missed the cut, receiving $.97 for every dollar it pays in taxes. But of those 33, 21 of them voted for McCain. (The top four, all of whom get about twice as much from Washington as they put in, are Mississippi, New Mexico, Bobby Jindhal's Louisiana, and--Alaska. Yup.) On the other hand, 16 of the 18 states who pay in more than they receive voted for Obama. In any event, if one spends a little time listening to Hannity or Limbaugh or watching one of the Fox shows, it is clear that for the foreseeable future, anything that the President does will be interpreted as a step towards radical socialism, a refusal to stand up for American values and interests abroad, and an expression of the President's purported "hatred" of the United States and its values, which, Limbaugh and Hannity constantly claim, he learned at the feet of William Ayres and Jeremiah Wright. This is bound to take its toll.
(The virulence and lunacy of these attacks, which have reached such a pitch in only three weeks, inevitably raises the question of how much role the President's race is playing. These are very difficult questions to answer, but I honestly believe that it is an insignificant factor. Had Hillary Clinton won the election I am sure the tone would be just the same, if not worse. Since 1968, when Richard Nixon began competing lustily for the supporters of George Wallace, social resentment has been at least as important as racial resentment in stoking the Republican fires. The real question is whether Obama and the Democratic Party can win over some portion of red state voters by actually doing something to help their lives.)
And meanwhile, in foreign policy, the Administration's good instincts are paying dividends in Latin America, where the 50-year freeze in our relations with Cuba--to which I referred on the last page of The Road to Dallas--seems likely at last to come to an end. The withdrawal from Iraq is also hopeful--but the renewed effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan seems to me only likely to make the situation in Pakistan even worse, possibly culminating in a fundamentalist coup that might trigger an effort to seize Pakistan's nuclear weapons. And elements within Israel are once again attempting to intimidate the US into blessing or aiding in a strike against Iran--a step which I can only compare to the Austro-Hungarian attack on Serbia that triggered the First World War, since I think it would begin an indefinite conflict, fought by all means available, between much of the Muslim world on one side and Israel and the US on the other. The Bush Administration's policies have established a powerful momentum in the region which the Obama Administration has not been able to reverse--if indeed it even wants to do so.
In 1996, when I reviewed Strauss and Howe's The Fourth Turning, I commented that I was excited by the possibility of living through another era of great events. Now it feels more like a very regrettable necessity. Despite having known about the theory of crises for 15 years--during which it has proven itself out in dozens of ways--I cannot accept the coming crisis as anything more but a most regrettably necessary evil. Now it is here: a grave illness which our domestic and international body politics must endure, if only to clear away dead tissue and give new life the opportunity to begin the process over again. It is the fourth and most dramatic act of the 80 year drama which was destined, for those of us born in the wake of the last crisis, to coincide with our lives--and it can only make it easier to endure to appreciate it as such.