The Alchemy of Obama

In this month's cover story, James Fallows takes a moment to zero in on 2010, and the Obama Administration's soft hand with the banks

An official familiar with the administration's economic policy told me: "The recapitalization of the banks was a good idea, and necessary. But we did not put enough conditions on [their] getting the money. Ultimately not being tougher with the guys that got the money is the thing that overthrows the government twice--in 2008 [in a reaction against Bush's TARP plan] and again in 2010." Keeping the system going was the guideline during the early days of financial rescue, and again later during the argument over government shutdowns and the raising of the debt ceiling. During the initial rescue, 

Obama's response was of course shaped by the technocrat circle that guided the effort. From their experience with Asian and Latin American financial panics during the Clinton era, the likes of Summers, Geithner, and Orszag understood that their task was akin to emergency-room medicine, or firefighting. They had to contain the emergency first, because otherwise there was no telling how dire the consequences could be, and worry about anything else later. 

"Larry, Tim, Peter--when they heard about restricting bonuses or compensation, they would think, These are people's contracts, we can't change their contracts," a member of the executive branch said. "But really it was the idea that the problem was enormous, the economy is in big trouble, do we want to make enemies while we're putting out the fire? Usually they opted for whatever they thought would keep the economy going." 

This rings true about the mood in the middle of an emergency, and also about the cultural tone-deafness that can affect people who all come from the same rarefied world.

I think this is really the sort of thing that burns up the president's more populist critics. In our guts, a lot of us wanted to see the sort of justice meted out which we are all subject to in our daily lives. And yet meting out that justice may well have made matters worse. Part of the advantage of power isn't just in wielding but in being able to escape the full brunt of punishment for wielding it irresponsibly.

As an aside, I enjoyed Fallows piece. Along with some of the better journalism we've seen over the past few months, it really makes clear that the inexperience criticism we heard during the Clinton campaign was substantive. And yet, given that Clinton folks are behind some of the administration's greatest shortcomings, I'm still not sure what to make of that point.

I think the thing is this: Nobody wins them all. And presidential greatness, in the moment, requires a uncanny combination of powers. Fallows again:

Presidents fail because not to fail would require, in the age of modern communications and global responsibilities, a range of native talents and learned skills no real person has ever possessed. These include "smarts" in the normal sense--the analytical ability to cope with the stream of short- and long-term decisions that come at a president nonstop. (How serious is the latest provocation out of North Korea? What are the "out year" budget implications of a change in Medicaid repayment formulas?) 

A president needs rhetorical clarity and eloquence, so that he can explain to publics at home and around the world the intent behind his actions and--at least as important--so that everyone inside the administration understands his priorities clearly enough that he does not have to wade into every little policy fight to enforce his preferences. A president needs empathy and emotional intelligence, so that he can prevail in political dealings with his own party and the opposition in Washington, and in face-to-face negotiations with foreign leaders, who otherwise will go away saying that this president is "weak" and that the country's leadership role is suspect. 

He needs to be confident but not arrogant; open-minded but not a weather vane; resolute but still adaptable; historically minded but highly alert to the present; visionary but practical; personally disciplined but not a prig or martinet. He should be physically fit, disease-resistant, and capable of being fully alert at a moment's notice when the phone rings at 3 a.m.--yet also able to sleep each night, despite unremitting tension and without chemical aids... 

A new president's first term is usually an experiment in seeing which weak point will limit everything else he does. George W. Bush was disciplined and decisive but not sufficiently informed or inquisitive. Bill Clinton was informed and inquisitive but was nearly driven from office because he was not personally disciplined. George H. W. Bush was disciplined and informed but could not seem empathetic or visionary. Ronald Reagan was eloquent and decisive but less and less attentive to the analytic part of his job. You can take the list back a very long way. Many presidents who survive to a second term and thereby attain the ultimate in political success see their preexisting failings bear worse fruit. Impeachment for Bill Clinton, Iran-Contra for Ronald Reagan, impeachment and resignation for Richard Nixon, and so on. 

The alchemy of it all is dizzying. My sense is that Obama possesses more of these qualities than he lacks. Moreover, I think having to carry all of this off all while being the biggest black "First" in American history is impressive. Like Fallows, I would expect him to grow in his second term.