I once worked for an editor who banned the word “oxymoron.” I don’t know why. It’s a good word, meaning a contradiction in terms. The dictionary offers some examples: “wise fool” and “legal murder.” I would like to cite another: Barack Obama. He sends contradictory messages.
This aspect of Obama’s is beginning to play a crucial role in his management of the economy. The fact remains, no matter what Obama says — and almost no matter what he does — the business community deeply feels that he is unsympathetic to them and their goals. They say all they want to do is make an (honest) buck, but to do that they need consistency, predictability and — it would be nice — a pat on the back.
The apprehension about Obama was forcefully expressed by Kenneth Langone, a former director of the New York Stock Exchange. Last year, he used a CNBC town hall meeting to tell Obama that the business community thinks he’s antagonistic. Speaking directly to the president (via videotape), Langone replied to the question of what Obama should be doing: “Well, I think the one thing to do is to not make people in business feel like we’re villains or criminals or doing something wrong.”
“Are you vilifying business?” the moderator, John Harwood, asked the president a bit later.
“Absolutely not,” Obama replied. “Let’s look at the track record here.”
Ah, yes, the track record. My reading of it is not much different than Obama’s, but then I am not a businessman, do not eat in their clubs or fly charter. I do know that many of them feel that Obama is at root a hostile liberal, a former community organizer (this is often cited as if the word “community” was synonymous with communist) who would tinker with God’s most perfect economic system by giving the government an inordinate role. You will look in vain for anything Obama has said to substantiate this view.
Almost the same thing has happened with Obama’s Israel policy. On this page just last week, Rahm Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff and now Chicago mayor, asserted his credentials as “as an American and a Jew” and “the son of an Israeli immigrant” to attest to Obama’s approach to the Middle East. Emanuel recapitulated the president’s recent speech about Israel and, indeed, it had all the right words. Emanuel was, in effect, saying: If you trust me, trust Obama. He’s halfway there.
Here again Obama’s oxymoronic quality is on display. As with the business community, Obama’s assurances to the pro-Israel community mean little. His precise words are discounted. As with the business community, rumor or anecdote trumps pronouncements or actions — something Obama once said, a pro-Palestinian friend he once had. Something like that. The whisper has more volume than the speech itself. It is an odd state of affairs.
It’s highly unlikely that Obama’s Middle East policy, perceived or actual, will cost him reelection. The economy, though, is a different matter. Here, Obama is out of options. Unemployment is up a tick, housing is down plenty of ticks and manufacturing is out of breath. The sane policy remedy would be to pour on the stimulus, adding jobs — even government jobs — to offset those that have been lost. The insane policy would be to ignore the signal lesson of the Great Depression — when Franklin Roosevelt, listening to the John Boehners of his day, cut spending to reduce the deficit. The Depression deepened.
There will be no stimulus. The Republicans will see to that. The Fed cannot lower interest rates further. They’re about at zero. The option left for Obama is to reassure the business community that he is on their side, that he is counting on them to produce jobs and that they, feeling optimistic, will spend the $1.9 trillion in cash they have stuffed in their corporate mattresses. These executives are not fools. They are reacting to a perceived reality.
In essence, Obama needs to lead. He needs to show those qualities that made Ronald Reagan and FDR such formidable politicians. They both served in economically perilous times — Roosevelt much more so than Reagan — and had an internal and external consistency that Obama has lacked. Their essential quality was buoyant optimism — a Happy Warrior (the term FDR used for Al Smith) and a Morning-Again-in-America guy. Their critics called them many things, but never dour, and never oxymoronic.