By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
These are good times for a Great Depression.
President Obama visited a struggling hamlet in Indiana yesterday and gave a speech that would not be mistaken for a pep talk. We're in "an economic crisis as deep and as dire as any since the Great Depression," he said, and without quick action, "our nation will sink into a crisis that at some point we may be unable to reverse."
Lawmakers, too, were feeling blue. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said on the Senate floor yesterday that "we will get close to the Great Depression" without action, while Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) spoke of an economy "perched on the edge of a cliff" that without help will fall "off the side to a deep depression."
"We're only a few steps away from spiraling down to a depression," Sen Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on television Sunday. "The risk of doing nothing could lead to a Great Depression."
If the economy isn't already in a depression, Americans themselves are likely to be if they've been hearing their leaders drop the D-bomb again and again.
Returning to the White House, the president held a prime-time news conference last night to report on his findings in Indiana. He spoke of "the most profound economic emergency since the Great Depression," a "full-blown crisis," the "winter of our hardship" and the danger of turning "a crisis into a catastrophe."
The first questioner, Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press, asked Obama to explain his statement in Indiana that the downturn may not be reversible. "Do you think that you risk losing some credibility or even talking down the economy by using dire language like that?"
"This is not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill recession," Obama answered. "We are going through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression."
You don't say.
Last week, the president of the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank said she saw "the same type of dynamics taking place that do happen in a depression," while the head of the International Monetary Fund said that the leading economies are "already in depression," and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown pronounced his country in a depression before downgrading that to a recession.
Here in town, the talk has been similarly dour. "Our economy is dark, darker, darkest almost," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told ABC News.
Conservatives accuse Democrats of "talking down the economy" (Sean Hannity) and "ever-heightening hyperbole" (the Washington Times) aimed at passing Obama's stimulus proposal. But there is a problem with that accusation: Republican officials agree that, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said yesterday, "the economy is in serious trouble."
Still, even if things are as bad as the lawmakers say, there is a danger that the constant alarms, intended to speed passage of Obama's stimulus plan, could also cause people to hide their money in their mattresses. Dorgan, a third-term senator from North Dakota, gave his colleagues an education in this notion of consumer confidence yesterday. "If the American people are confident," he said on the Senate floor, "they buy a suit of clothes, they buy a car, buy a house, take a trip, do the things that expand this economy."
Unfortunately, by the time Dorgan got to his consumer-confidence lecture, he had given consumers scant reason for confidence. "This clearly is a wreck," he said, adding phrases such as "the whole tent came collapsing down," "financial wreckage," "into the ditch" and "this system that has collapsed around us."
Plenty of Dorgan's colleagues shared his gloom. On the Senate floor yesterday, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) warned that the economy will be "in a deeper recession or a depression" if the stimulus bill does not pass. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) was already referring to the current economy as "this recession-slash-depression."
Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) countered that the higher debt could mean that "this country's economy will completely collapse. It will be worse than the Great Depression."
Earlier in the stimulus debate, Baucus had warned that "we could get pretty close" to the Great Depression, while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) warned that "we've got to do something to turn this around or we will be there."
Obama was hinting at the same thing in Indiana yesterday. "I don't want to lie to people," he said, "because the situation we face could not be more serious." That, of course, was a preamble to the president's message: His stimulus plan, once passed by Congress, will "put Americans back to work."
If they're not too depressed to get out of bed, that is.
At last night's news conference, Obama, aided by the likes of ABC's Jake Tapper, who pronounced the economy in a "free fall," spent most of an hour talking about grim things. "The party is now over. . . . Stop the downward spiral. . . . Make sure that the economy doesn't continue to tank. . . . This is an unprecedented crisis."
The Washington Post's Michael Fletcher tried to lighten things up with a question about Alex Rodriguez's steroid use. But Obama couldn't shake the Great Depression. "I think it's depressing news," he said, "on top of what's been a flurry of depressing items when it comes to major league baseball."