In the New York Times on Sunday, January 24, 2010, Thomas Friedman writes in his piece, “More (Steve) Jobs, Jobs, Jobs, Jobs,” about programs that can be helpful in getting the economy moving. For example,
Obama should make the centerpiece of his presidency mobilizing a million new start-up companies that won’t just give us temporary highway jobs, but lasting good jobs that keep America on the cutting edge. The best way to counter the Tea Party movement, which is all about stopping things, is with an Innovation Movement, which is all about starting things.
Fine. Let’s support programs that can provide education and opportunity. But Friedman also gives the president some advice.
Well, here’s my free advice to Obama, post-Massachusetts. If you think that the right response is to unleash a populist backlash against bankers, you’re wrong. Please, please re-regulate the banks in a smart way. But remember: in the long run, Americans don’t rally to angry politicians. They do not bring out the best in us. We rally to inspirational, hopeful ones. They bring out the best in us. And right now we need to be at our best.
This is a bad piece of political advice. It pretends that one can decontextualize a politician’s responses and hides behind the phrase “in the long run” in order to do so. President Franklin Roosevelt sounded pretty angry when he spoke to the nation about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—you remember, “a date which will live in infamy.” And then there was his cousin, Theodore. He got pretty angry at those old monopolies in order to help pass some progressive anti-trust laws. In general, can you imagine how the American people would react if an American president did not get angry at a perceived threat, domestic or foreign, to the well-being of the nation?
To say that Americans don’t rally in the long run to angry politicians is one of those innocuous truisms that mean little in the real political world, for everything depends on what one means by “the long run.” (As Keynes said, “in the long run we’ll all be dead.”) In the short run, and medium runs, the American people surely do rally to an angry president, as long as they can connect with the anger. They also rally to presidents who know when to get angry and when to be inspirational. (Presumably this would mean getting angry on and off, so it would sort of be in the long run.) Oh, yes, and then there are those presidential moments that combine anger and inspiration.
Since the statement about anger is so obviously off the mark and hackneyed, one might be inclined to look for some other motivation for Friedman tossing it out. Here’s my guess. Friedman is scared that if Obama goes too far in attacking the bankers a rift may develop between his administration and the wonderful world of capital. And then America may find itself falling behind foreign nations in the new flat world of economic competition that we face. According to Friedman, entrepreneurs, who at some point will require capital, are the movers and shakers in this world, and it will be a pretty scary place for those places and persons who aren’t on board in terms of the new world order.
But back home, in the meantime, Obama only gets to use the bully pulpit with one hand tied behind his back while he is trying to back Wall Street down. (Note Machiavelli here: it is better that the prince be loved and feared.) Friedman wants Obama to re-regulate the banks. In the real world of American politics just how is he supposed to accomplish this without some heavy duty support in Congress? And given the special interests standing in the way of reforms, you can kiss them good-bye if the American people don’t get sufficiently excited about the issue to get their representatives worried about reelection.
I have a piece of advice for Mr. Friedman and I hope that he won’t mind. It is in the spirit of his advice to the president: Don’t worry! Obama won’t forget about being loved over the long run.
UPDATE, January 27, 2010
For readers who may have felt that I was being a bit unfair to Friedman by claiming that he may have been motivated by fear, I suggest that you check out his column today, “Adult’s Only, Please.” Here is an excerpt. Catch the last line. (He does acknowledge that Obama might be justified in being a bit peeved by the way some on Wall Street have behaved, but hey, just let’s not make them too angry. And if you do, well, you are not being an adult, which of course Friedman is.)
Lately, we’ve seen an explosion of situational thinking. I support the broad proposals President Obama put forth last week to prevent banks from becoming too big to fail and to protect taxpayers from banks that get in trouble by speculating and then expect us to bail them out. But the way the president unveiled his proposals — “if those folks want a fight, it’s a fight I’m ready to have” — left me feeling as though he was looking for a way to bash the banks right after the Democrats’ loss in Massachusetts, in order to score a few cheap political points more than to initiate a serious national discussion about an incredibly complex issue.
President Obama is so much better when he takes a heated, knotty issue, like civil rights or banking reform, and talks to the country like adults. He is so much better at making us smarter than angrier. Going to war with the banks for a quick political sugar high after an electoral loss will just work against him and us. It will spook the banks into lending even less and slow the recovery even more.
I am a professor by trade. I like the idea of making people smarter (or perhaps I should say, better educated), especially over the long run. But I think we all know the danger of coming off like a professor discussing fire codes while the house is burning down.