The 'Meltdown' Article; Also 'Passionless'

By James Fallows
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Thanks to Joe Nocera for a reference to my 2005 article, "Countdown to a Meltdown," in his NYT column today. I wanted to say a word about the background of that piece, and of another, older one.

As I mentioned once before, that Meltdown piece arose from a desire to find a non-tedious way to talk about the economic and fiscal imbalances building up in the mid-2000s. The solution I came up with, at the prodding of Cullen Murphy, was an imagined history of the Presidential Election of 2016, with the "MacGuffin" of its plotline being the big (and at the time also imaginary) housing/financial crash of the late 2000s. The idea was that prolonged economic chaos discredited both of the main political parties and cleared the way for a third, "let's cut the crap" party to take the White House. It's written in the form of a "What do we do now?" memo from the new party's Karl Rove equivalent to the candidate destined to win in 2016.

Obviously a lot of the details and color in the story are now quaint or out of date. For instance, a few months before writing this piece, I had been in the hall at the Democratic National Convention in Boston and heard young State Senator Barack Obama deliver the rousing keynote address that propelled him to national attention. But in the plotting for this article, I assumed that first black president, elected in 2012, would be a Republican and a war hero -- what we'd now see as a cross between Colin Powell and David Petraeus. Still some of the patterns of the projected meltdown will not seem so outdated.  UPDATE: I forgot to mention that a lot of the conceit of this piece depends on David Foster Wallace-style abundant footnotes. In the print magazine they were on the same page as the relevant main text. Online, you should click on the little footnote icons to be taken to them, then use the browser back-arrow to get back to where you were.

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In the wake of this past weekend's NYT-driven discussion on why the roof seems to be falling in on the Obama Administration, I wanted to mention an even older Atlantic article: "The Passionless Presidency," from 1979. Because I had worked for Carter, that article was extremely controversial at the time. I was reminded of it by, among other things, the web title on the controversial NYT piece by Drew Weston: "What Happened to Obama's Passion?" The print version was just "What Happened to Obama?"

Having thought about it a lot, I think there are more, and more important, differences between the Carter and Obama presidencies than there are similarities. One of the differences is discouraging: the opposition party Carter dealt with was much less zero-sum, much less wholly obstructionist, much less likely to say that their "single most important goal" was making Carter a one-term president, than today's Republicans are. It is almost incredible to realize that Senate Republicans back then were largely people who would be "primaried" by Tea Party opponents today: Charles Percy in Illinois, Howard Baker in Tennessee, William Cohen in Maine, John Heinz in Pennsylvania, Lowell Weicker in Connecticut, (the late) Mark Hatfield in Oregon, etc. Plus, Carter had sizable  Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate to work with. America had big problems in that era too, but people were less likely to talk about thoroughgoing "dysfunction" than we are now.

TimeCarter.jpgBut that article, read now, suggests one similarity, which is a vulnerability of many "charismatic" political leaders -- and, trust me, that is how Jimmy Carter was seen for a while during that campaign and his early time in office. You can go look it up, including in Time's 'Man of the Year' cover story. That vulnerability comes from the idea that what a leader has to offer the country is less a detailed set of policy prescriptions and promises (although he may have them, and Carter had a ton) but rather himself -- his values, his sensibility, the judgment he will bring to bear on the necessarily unpredictable problems he will face in office. (Yes, I am using "he" as shorthand for "he or she" throughout.) The problems a president has to deal with are never exactly those that come up during a campaign, and therefore the choice in every election is a combination of support for specific views and comfort/discomfort with the candidate's judgment overall. But some candidates offer a stronger dose of "vote for me because you know what I'm for," as with George W. Bush, and others offer more of "vote for me because you like who I am."

Because of his short time on the national stage and his unique personal story, Barack Obama's campaign necessarily was heavy on "vote for me because of who I am." In an election held just two years after Richard Nixon's resignation and one year after the fall of Saigon, Carter's "who I am" stance of honest competence was an important part of his appeal too. His autobiography, after all, was called "Why Not the Best?" Carter and Obama are very different men, operating in different worlds,  and with different sources of support. But that old article suggests some of the problems that arise from an "I offer myself to the nation" approach. Later on, probably tomorrow, I'll start quoting a number of interesting "pawn v. chessmaster" responses. For now, I present these links to the Atlantic archives.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/08/the-meltdown-article-also-passionless/243312/