By David Ignatius
Thursday, April 2, 2009
As President Obama takes his seat at the Group of 20 summit in London today, the world's leaders will be curious what economic philosophy he represents. Is this the same America that celebrated go-go capitalism and resisted regulation of global financial markets, or is it a chastened nation? Is America still from Mars, to use the shorthand of the Bush years, or has it moved to Venus?
I was curious about the vision that animates Obamanomics, so I put the question last week to David Axelrod, the president's senior adviser. He enumerated the usual list of specific policies -- health care, energy, education. When pressed for an overall conceptual framework, he described an effort to create a "new balance" in the country and a "new foundation" for economic growth.
"Things have been out of balance for the last decade," Axelrod said. "We want to restore that sense of balance, that we're all in this together. We're not doing this right if we have a small group of people who are benefiting while most aren't. The president wants to create a prosperity that is broadly held.
"We talk about 'the new foundation,' " he continued. "You can build a lovely house, but if it's built on a soft foundation, it's going to collapse. The foundation to us is energy, health care and education."
That's why Obama has been so reluctant to give up these policy reforms, even as critics chide him for trying to do too much. The new programs are the reward for all the pain the country is experiencing -- the insurance policy for future prosperity.
Axelrod explains the link this way: "The president's main focus is developing an economy that is not rooted in the bubble and bust, not rooted in an overheated housing market or maxed-out credit cards. He sees a future where we're a leader in energy technology, where we once again have the best-educated workforce in the world, where health-care costs are not on a disastrous trajectory."
What Axelrod described represents a different economic approach from Obama's recent predecessors. And it should reassure a world that is worried about American leadership. This White House is speaking an economic language that Europe and Asia understand -- more regulation, more government intervention, a more generous safety net -- without abandoning America's commitment to free markets.
"We walked into a triage unit," Axelrod says. He argues that because of Obama's efforts during the frantic first 60 days, people "are beginning to believe in the country again." A Post-ABC News poll this week seems to bear him out, with a tripling since December of the number of Americans who think the country is heading in the right direction.
If you're looking for a more conceptual phrase than "new foundation," you could describe Obama's approach as "post-globalization" or "post-liberalism."
When Americans spoke of "globalization," they meant that U.S. ideas about free markets and capital flows were becoming universal. But in Europe and Asia, you sometimes heard a different term. People spoke of the U.S.-led system as "liberalism," and it wasn't a compliment. They were anxious about a process of globalization that was sweeping away traditional rules and cultural values. In the name of efficiency, this liberalism seemed to put their way of life on the knife-edge of the market.
This suspicion of Anglo-Saxon economic liberalism cut across the usual political boundaries. Right-wing industrialists disliked it, but so did left-wing labor unions. Chinese communists felt threatened, but so did Green Party activists in Germany. Facing this voracious economic machine, the rest of the world was basically conservative. People liked things the way they were; they didn't want their lives turned upside down by the free market.
The critique of American liberalism underlies the London summit. It's shared by a diverse group that includes French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. None of them wants America to abdicate its position as global leader; they know there's no alternative. But they do want America to get its house in order -- to stop lecturing other people and fix the problems that created the financial crisis.
The G-20 summiteers should find Obama and his vision of a new foundation reassuring. This president is in the repair business. He's smart, solid, practical -- to the point of occasionally being boring. He understands that America made a mess, and he's trying his best to clean it up.