He should have gone on national TV and had the fireside chat with the country that is long overdue. That’s a talk where he lays out exactly how deep the crisis we are in is, exactly how much sacrifice we’re all going to have to make to get out of it, and then calls on those A.I.G. brokers — and everyone else who, in our rush to heal our banking system, may have gotten bonuses they did not deserve — and tells them that their president is asking them to return their bonuses “for the sake of the country.”
Had Mr. Obama given A.I.G.’s American brokers a reputation to live up to, a great national mission to join, I’d bet anything we’d have gotten most of our money back voluntarily. Inspiring conduct has so much more of an impact than coercing it. And it would have elevated the president to where he belongs — above the angry gaggle in Congress.
Leaving aside the fact that I don’t think that would have made anyone give back their money, it reminds me of this from David Broder about Bush:
But I listened in vain for any admission of what I and others consider the greatest moral failing of the Bush presidency — his refusal to ask any sacrifice from most of the American people when he put the nation on a wartime footing after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Bush authorized torture, used every sort of trick to violate the constitution, literally fiddled while New Orleans flooded, and left the country in a shambles. How on earth could not asking for sacrifice be his greatest moral failure? Obama is facing a catastrophic banking crisis and the Geithner plan has been found wanting in many influential quarters. How can a fireside chat be job number one?
Don’t get me wrong: if by “asked for sacrifice,” Broder means “rolled back his tax cuts,” then this was a great failing on Bush’s part (though it is still nowhere near his greatest failing and it’s not clear that’s what Broder means at all). And I agree that Obama could do a better job of describing the financial crisis to the public.
But to suggest over and over again that the main duty of the government is to tell the population what to do and how to feel is hopelessly naive, the sort of thing no one over the age of 12 should believe. It’s the same kind of thinking that makes our punditocracy hail an idiot like Mikheil Saakashvili as a hero of democracy because he likes to talk about freedom, the same kind that caused the media man-crushes on Huckabee and McCain (and, yes, it’s also part of the reason they liked Obama better than Hillary).
The president of the United States oversees a multi-trillion dollar budget, a vast foreign policy apparatus, countless scientific and judicial issues. The decisions a president makes about these things have profound effects, not just on the U.S. economy but possibly on the future of human civilization (see climate change and nuclear proliferation). How on earth can a few fireside chats and calls for sacrifice be the primary thing by which they are judged?