“This is more than disappointing. In fact, it fills me with a sense of despair.”

Who is this, writing of Obama economic-crisis supremo Tim Geithner’s financial recovery plan? Some right wing nut? A Bible belt congressman named Thaddeus? The entire staff of the National Review?

No, it’s Paul Krugman, the George Clooney of the US liberal-left economosphere, writing in the NY Times, which last Sunday hit Obama from all sides.

Krugman, who advocates a $2-$3 trillion stimulus package, twice the size of Obama’s plan, eviscerates the Geithner plan as simply a reheated version of the plan under Dubya, in his presidency’s end-stage: reprice bad bank assets, then buy them (or in Geithner’s plan, lend the private sector money to buy them), thus restoring bank balance sheets and getting things starting again. Allegedly.

For Krugman, this is pusillanimously ineffective; since it doesn’t deal with the fact that no-one has confidence in the entire system at the moment. Obama has political capital to do what needs to be done — take state control of the worst banks — but he’s not doing it, deferring instead to the market.

Oh dear. It’s not going very well is it? Whether it’s the big things — like um the survival of the global financial system — or the small things, like bad-taste jokes on late-night TV — only the most blinkered Obamaniac would be getting any joy from The One’s current performance. With the failure to attack the crisis head-on when even John McCain’s former advisor is urging bank nationalisation, combined with the farcical attempt to appoint a full staff, the opportunity Obama had to take audacious action is slipping away. Indeed, one of those failed appointments, would-be Commerce secretary John Gregg, is now Obama’s greatest critic, saying his plans would bankrupt America. Great choice. Greeeaaat choice.

The small stuff would matter less, if the big stuff was working. As it ain’t, gaffes and slip-ups come to be symptoms of a wider malaise, rather than goofy moments. The inability to handle a simple matter like diplomatic gift-giving — the Russian reset/overkill button, the blockbuster three-for-one DVDs special — suggests an administration lacking not only follow-through, but wisdom.

Who doesn’t see the freaky absurdity in giving the Russian President a red button for frig’s sake? If there wasn’t one person in the room who said, “uh this is Ronnie Wrong from Wrongtown” at some stage in the complex process of authorising a gift — and who also might have said, “well if we’re going to put some Russian on it, let’s get like three Russian PhDs in the room to check it” — really what does it say about the admin as a whole?

The questions pile up: Why return a Churchill bust to the UK embassy? Why not just shove the old bruiser in a remote corner? The DVDs etc. And all that was a prelude to Obama’s gaffe during his appearance on the Jay Leno show last week.

For those who missed it, Leno ribbed Obama about his terrible ten-pin bowling during the campaign, played a clip and then Obama joshed back, “yeah it was like something out of the Special Olympics,” before both men froze momentarily and then resumed talking about something else.

The joke was pretty terrible, demeaning and sourish, but the mystery is how Obama came to make it. Was this Professor Obama, reminding himself that he was appearing on the Tonight Show for the couch-schlep crowd and wildly misjudging where the culture was at in terms of what people found funny? Or was it an unguarded moment of the old Barry Obama, the kid who pretty early realised he was smart, cute and cool, exhibiting a flash of disdain that rarely comes to the surface?

Whatever, it turned the event — seen by 12% of households with a TV in the US, ie America minus Amish, as against Leno’s usual score of 4%, and ten to twenty times the exposure he’d get on a news show — from opportunity into yet another problem. That it wasn’t as bad as it could have been is due to the weird culture war crossover it demands. The right, to attack it, have to engage in the sort of huffing and puffing they would ordinarily slate as “political correctness gone mad”, sorry, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS GONE MAD!

To defend it he US liberal-left would basically have to say that the occasional spaz joke was no big deal, at which point they would turn into pillars of (heart healthy iodised sea-) salt. The only contender perfectly placed to take advantage of it was Sarah Palin whose secret grand-daughter, Theodolite, was as you may have heard, born with special needs.

Yarrrrrgh and yarrghh again.

Such minutiae are being focused on here, as elsewhere, because everyone can judge an off-colour joke, while no-one at all has a clue what’s going on with the economy. Except of course for outrage at bonus payments, which team Obama also appear to have mishandled, with their Casablanca act (“I am shocked, shocked, to hear that bankers are being greedy”), neither getting in front of it, nor arguing that the true focus should be on the billions, not the millions, and where they go.

Now, having allowed bonus exemptions to be included in the original TARP package, Congress is trying to claw them back — a difficult act when you have hams for fists. Yarrr — as I may have mentioned — rrrrgh.

But where Obama is failing most grievously is in an unwillingness to take the fight to the right. The latter are getting away with murder, constructing the stimulus package as “robbing our grandchildren” — a moral fantasy which presumes that, without stimulus, the economy will hit bottom and then start again through American ingenuity etc. The more likely scenario is that, without stimulus, the US economy would remain deflated for years, while the global economy shifts eastward.

The month that India starts rolling a $3000 car off the line is not the time to start talking about discipline of the market, etc etc. Even the Toyota workers in Southern states, pulling 60 hour shifts, and barred from unionising — the sector pointed to as the future of the US car industry — are pulling in forty grand plus a year. No-one in the US is going to turn up for factory work for the sort of wages that an Indian would regard as wealth beyond all measure.

The only chance America’s grandchildren have may be a stimulus package that allows for a retooling of the industry, so that the entire country doesn’t look like Detroit currently does in twenty years time.

Obama has been selling the crisis nature of this moment quite well, but he hasn’t yet put the right in the sights as the enemy, the wreckers, the anti-Americans. Partly this is because he still needs any five of them in the Senate on any given vote, so as to get round the filibuster — but it is also evidence of a curious reticence, of his deep desire that politics be a rational, collegial affair at high levels.

The right are wide open for it — as Kevin Rudd cannily realised with his “Howard’s Brutopia” routine. The hilarious idea that Howard was some doctrinaire Hayekian, the story about the enemy doesn’t have to be believable. It simply has to be a story. Bad people are trying to wreck your life. Why are they doing this? Who knows? Who cares? They’re just bad people. They are more interested in believing themselves to be right than they are in common-sense solutions. How is it possible to be so evil? I have to say that Hillary could have sold that line from here to Christmas.

Indeed it would have dovetailed perfectly with the right’s delusional self-destructive streak, exemplified by Rush Limbaugh’s remark that he wants “Obama to fail”. Talk about a set-up. But where’s the fake outrage? Where’s the sanctimony? Here, surely, is where you need the Casablanca routine:

FANTASY OBAMA: I am shocked, shocked, to hear Rush Limbaugh’s remarks, hoping that I fail. I know there are deep political differences in the US, but I expected that in these desperate times we could come together in the common pursuit of getting America working again. That’s what we’ve always done — even after going to war with each other — and that’s what’s made this country great — and I expected it would happen once more with the challenges of the 21st century.

I guess I was wrong. I guess the bitterness and sense of failure by many on the right is so deep that they would rather see us continue to lose hundreds of thousands of jobs a month, rather than see a Democratic president succeed. That is deeply, deeply saddening. What, one asks, motivates such people that they let such hatred govern their souls? That they would rather see despair and difficulty spread, rather than be beaten back? That they would have so little concern for people’s lives. People like Hank Pretext of Random, Ohio, who assembles cars with his teeth — or did until last y-…..

Etc.

Jesus what a Hillary, a Keating, a Blair — a Howard for that matter — could do with this stuff. They’d end, Howard especially, with a chorus of Times They Are a Changin’ — the “please get out of the road if you can’t lend a hand” bit.

Of course I have no idea whether the stimulus package will work. No-one does. Eventually it almost certainly cause stagflation — but the alternative is pretty much that America stops working altogether for a while. The important thing — the only thing — a leader in dark times can do is sell, not the promise of success, but of gutsy commitment and the utter hopelessness of the other side. When the White House did respond to Limbaugh et al, it was hopeless, defensive and impeccably liberal. They should have squashed him like a bug.

It’s the other side who have got the upper hand at the moment — even though Obama’s approval rating remains high. But a few more months of this and they will be worn down dramatically and … ah man. ’08 was such a great year.

Peter Fray

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