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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Winter setting in

[Note to new readers: if you have found this blog after receiving an email that begins, "Something of historic proportions is happening--falsely attributed to me--please read the post below this one first. Thank you.]

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.


David Kaiser said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

It works.

I don't know what the problem was, but I'm glad the comment feature is back.

Jenny Genser

Jordan Greenhall said...

Hey David,

I agree with your basic sentiment, but also have to be mindful that nothing in Strauss and Howe (nor in anything else) implies that we will survive the crisis.

World War II was bad - but if the timing had pushed it 10 years after the H-bomb rather than 10 years before, it could have been catastrophic.

As you point out, Obama is facing 3 crisis fronts and you might as well through a climate (principally food and water) on top of that.

From where I sit, the pathway to successfully navigate this thing and take advantage of the re-start offered by winter is quite narrow. Those of us born closer to the tail end of this cycle will have to take a more active role if we want to see that springtime of new growth.

Dennis said...

You fail to mention who will be paying this huge debt we have already accumulated, that is now going to be doubled and tripled?

You can not spend your way out of debt. How long are you planning to squeeze the productive in order to pay for the unproductive bureaucrats.

One other thought, were you blind to the lock step Democrats that held the party line for 8 years of bashing George Bush? As well as their well connected friends in the media. He started during a recession and then a major attack on our country.

This has been a chronic spending problem for well over 50 years, and all I hear is about George Bush. Congress controls the purse and has spent away all our money. The problem is lack of balance of power. When either party has had full control they over spend.

In our current crisis they want to spend a insane amount more, who is going to pay the bill in the end?

Jeff Turner said...

I am one of those "right wing loons" but I decided to check the facts before adding my name to those that have blindly forwarded the piece attributed to you. I do wnat thank you for the analysis you provided on Lincoln vs Rooseveldt vs Obama -- it was very insightful for me.

RAWAmerica.org said...

Regardless of original poster, the information is still accurate and in need of passing on. It points to the needs of us ordinary citizens to step up and defend the rights of our Constitution, plain and simple. Forget "political correctness" and all the garbage. The foundation of our country is at risk and may be irreversible if not checked.

Anonymous said...

When I read the "History Unfolding" email, sent to me by a friend, it really agreed with my impressions, observations, and knowledge of the, unprecidented in American politics, invasiveness of Obama and his mysteriously largely unknown backers. Coming from a seemingly well credentialed
person as Professor David Kaiser, it was well recieved by one not so well credentialed as myself. So, as you can well imagine, I was very disappointed to read in Wikedia that Prof. Kaiser claims this widely distributed email to be untrue.
If it is the case that the email is not from him, I am disappointed.
However, the arcticle was extremely well arcticulated and I would like to say that the contentions of the email seem to me to be the case and this point of view is shared by the (discounting major news media)majority of us Americans, however uncredentialed. Furthermore, after reading about Prof. Kaisers liberal bent, it doesn't surprise me that he would disavow this point of view.

What was that I read a while back about Wikepedia cleaning up the Obama's bio? Oh, pardon me, is that a seperate subject?

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the comments on nationalism . I have many times been quite purplexed by historians referring to life long ideolog communists such as Ho Chi Minh as Nationalists when as in the case of Ho Chi Minh himself saw Nationalists as enemies of the State and had them either jailed or assassinated .

Steve From Virginia said...

I'm doubtful about Obama, he's another Clinton who cannot figure out where the light switches are in the White House.

Just like Clinton, there are hundreds of important agency positions vacant ... he just doesn't work very hard.

Just like Clinton, his staff is made up of business hacks and cronies. Summers. Geithner. Holder. Chu. Bernanke.

Like Clinton, he's not his own person. He doesn't have a plan, doesn't stand for anything. See 'public option'.

Like Clinton, he's a stooge for big business.

The US is still beavily involved in Iraq in addition to the quagmire in Afghanistan. There is no exit in either of these conflicts.

Obama is self- aggrandizing, insecure, arrogant and ill informed. "The recession is over!" he says, 'the depression is beginning!'

Onlike FDR or Lincoln there are actually more problems than are listed above; existential problems that go beyond credit slowdowns or foreign controversies.

These are peak oil and climate disruption from accumulated greenhouse gasses.

Both require stepping outside the American habit of 'more - now' and retrenching. The alternatives are simple; collapse then extinction.

Here, Obama doesn't have a clue.

Why would he? He's the product of his environmnnt; Harvard law, the Illinois statehouse and the Senate ... politics and the genteel corruption that follows all US politicians like a shadow.

Can the country maneuver around our gigantic problems? Of course, but the BAU crowd will have to exit, that means both Limbaugh/Palin as well as Obama and his cronies.

When? It better happen soon or we are all cooked geese.