Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Hopes in the Change

Unless he (or Dick Cheney) has a last minute surprise up his sleeve, it appears that GW Bush will actually be leaving us on Tuesday, January 20, 2009. And, at this point, I doubt it -- I think he'll be as happy to go as we are to see him bid us a fond farewell.

So, it's 2 more days.

With all of the talk of looking forward/looking back as we prepare for the transition, Nathan Gardels speaks of how we are approaching the transfer of power. The collapse of our economy, along with all of the other things that ail us, has changed how we view Obama's upcoming Administration in many ways. As he notes, Inaugural Hope, but America Is in Shock:

America is in shock. It is not because of the unusual sight of the first black president taking up residence in the White House. Barack Obama's profile, after all, is more familiar to the diverse population of today's ethnically and racially hybrid America than the fast-disappearing WASP identity of George W. Bush. Sooner or later, but always, politics codifies cultural change, not the other way around. America is in shock because our economic and financial landscape is suddenly unrecognizable.

In the space of a few short months, we have morphed from the citadel of free-market capitalism and freewheeling consumerism -- from a land of high-flying hedge funds, Hummers and homes that doubled as ATMs -- to a system in which the banks, insurance companies, mortgage industry and auto manufacturers are quasi-socialized. Adding to that shock is the fact that middle-class investors have seen their portfolios, upon which they depended for retirement, diminished nearly by half.

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The year 2008 is thus likely to go down in American history as an even more pivotal one than 2001, when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred, because the life of the average American is going to be shaped far more by the consequences. We're not talking about the inconvenience of lining up to go through metal detectors at the airport. We're talking about the transformation of the American model itself. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz was not exaggerating when he quipped to me earlier this year that "the fall of Wall Street is to market fundamentalism what the fall of the Berlin Wall was to communism." Just like that, we're in a different era.

In this circumstance, Barack Obama will not be judged by the color of his skin, or even the content of his character. He will be judged by the quality of his leadership and the success of his policies in staving off depression and putting America back on the path to prosperity.

The reality of our economic crisis has taken a toll on the psyche of the nation. The hopes/fears that the country is facing brings about an unusual lack of expectation as Obama begins his new Administration. That is, although we hope he can somehow restore things, we just can't imagine how, as observed by Steven Thomma of McClathy News, With nation in historic funk, how will Obama inspire us?:
Many presidents have faced threats from enemies abroad. Many, too, have confronted economic peril.

However, few have faced what Barack Obama will have to address as president: a crisis of confidence that reaches deep into the country's soul.

Genetically optimistic and confident, Americans today are dismayed about their future. Retirement savings have been decimated. Jobs are disappearing. Those who are still working find their paychecks threatened. Houses are worth less. The U.S. auto industry, once the engine of middle-class security, teeters on the edge of collapse. Americans are hunkered down, refusing to spend money and inadvertently feeding the very crisis they're fleeing.

Even as more people look to Washington for help after trusting their money and their fate to the marketplace for a generation, they still harbor deep suspicion about a government, too often corrupt or incompetent, that's let them down from Watergate to Hurricane Katrina.

"It's the worst crisis of confidence in our political and government institutions since 1932," pollster John Zogby said.

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This corrosive pessimism could be as dangerous as any enemy the country or its leaders has faced. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said at his inauguration in 1933, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself: nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

As Roosevelt knew then, Obama knows now that restoring confidence and trust is crucial to restoring America. It will test every bit of the young president's skills and will require a broad array of responses, including a clear and convincing voice of optimism, bold proposals that tell people the government is doing something, and competence in governing that assures the land that there's a steady hand at the tiller.

But, as bad as things are, it could be worse. That's right -- Things Could be Worse: It could be President McCain in 3 days. Erica Heller reminds us:

These days, I feel caught in the strangest kind of limbo, suspended somewhere between euphoria and the most utter, bleak despair, and in speaking to the other people around me and even in hearing from friends all over the world, I know I am not alone. Everyone feels irritatingly and ominously hopeful and hopeless, ecstatic and morose.

We all held our collective breath for months, waiting to see if brains would triumph over bluster in the election. They did. Miraculously, we elected Barack Obama. Then, poised on the precipice of hope, the volcano of bad news started erupting and still it comes. We know now that the country Obama will take over from Bozo Inc. in just 3 days is, incomprehensibly, even more of a disaster than we could possibly have imagined. In fact, if I were Obama, I might well cry "foul" over the job description.

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Still, even in the midst of this gloomy, funereal muddle, perhaps it is worth noting that even with things as bad as they are, with no jobs, no money in our pockets and the forecast for things to get so bad that we are now at the proverbial picnic, things could be worse. Shouldn't we be counting our blessings right about now, and for longer than it takes to say the words "bankruptcy" or "foreclosure"?

It's worth trying to summon a bit of perspective, is it not? After all, if the cards had been dealt just a little bit differently, we would be counting down the days until President McCain's inauguration, just 3 left, not to mention Vice President Palin, you betcha. How grim would that be? Imagine Joe the Plumber preparing to reinstitute shuttle diplomacy right about now (or not), instead of Hillary Clinton. And who would have been Secretary of the Treasury, Howdy Doody Blagojevich?

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