The Wall Street Journal reported: “Facebook took eight years to stage one of the most anticipated initial public offerings ever. The anticlimax came Friday, as Wall Street bankers struggled to prevent the newly minted stock from ending its first day with a loss. The stock had been widely predicted to soar on its first day. Instead, up until the closing moments of the trading session, Facebook’s underwriters battled to keep the stock from slipping below its offering price of $38 a share. Such a stumble would have been a significant embarrassment, particularly for a prominent new issue like Facebook, the most heavily traded IPO of all time.”
Perhaps Facebook could never have lived up to expectations. What other company’s creation has been the subject of a major Hollywood movie? What other company had at its genesis a youth culture driven by self-absorption and the loss of traditional habits of discretion and modesty? But ultimately in the marketplace it is judged by results, and its long-term potential has to be assessed. Maybe the kids will move on to something else. Maybe it really doesn’t generate big bucks for its advertisers. Facebook only “works” if everyone you care about it is on it regularly. But how many people still obsessively check their Facebook account? After checking voicemail, e-mail and Twitter, who has time?
In many respects President Obama is the embodiment of Facebook. He was launched on the strength of young people. He ran, he conceded, as a blank slate (wall?) on which everyone could project their own dreams and aspirations. His success depended on a certain suspension of disbelief, the groupthink that his Zen-like, fortune cookie phrases (“We are the change we have been waiting for”) had deeper meaning and were indicative of a creative approach to governance.
But Obama didn’t perform as expected. The hype was more than the reality. What wealth had he helped to generate, what was his long-term potential for growth? Not so hot. It turns out he had management problems. His operation was bloated, and costs rose to vastly exceed revenue. People lost interest in him, like any fad. You can’t be an outside rebel up against the establishment when you’re hip deep in Wall Street, can you? Well, you get the idea.
There is a difference, grown-ups know, between style and value. The former is engaging and even intoxicating but by its very nature is fleeting and therefore unsatisfying.
And so it is with the president. Underneath the Spock like-cool is a traditional, entirely predictable liberal whose embrace of big government, disdain for the free market and condescension toward non-elites is indistinguishable from that of the average Ivy League professor. What he attempted (e.g., Keynesian economics, government-centric health care, engaging despots) didn’t work. There was no viable model to justify its valuation. The 2008 electorate is older and wiser, and the new crop of voters is disillusioned. (No matter how special they were told they are, many of them are burdened with debt, unemployed and looking at a future less affluent than that which their parents enjoyed.)
It is Obama’s misfortune to come up against an opponent who is a shrewd businessman, whose career was all about generating (or releasing) underlying value in firms that had suffered from poor management. Now Mitt Romney’s target is Federal Government Inc. He’s convinced that with a steady hand, real cost-cutting and a results-oriented outlook he can create a leaner operation and drain the swamp of red ink. That’s going to require dumping current management. The shareholders, er . . . voters, seem relieved to have spotted an adult leader.