Among the ways in which the economic meltdown we might be heading into now feels different from the last one: In 2008, Barack Obama’s handling of the market crisis sewed up his election. This time, that very same approach is drawing yowls and apoplexy from the Obama hard-core.
Three years ago, John McCain reacted to the collapse of Lehman Brothers by suspending his campaign, standing up David Letterman, and calling to postpone the first presidential debate. Obama, meanwhile, kept his head. Even as he engaged in furious negotiations with Hank Paulson and congressional Democrats to hammer out the TARP plan—at one point, according to Jonathan Alter’s The Promise, stepping in between the Treasury secretary and an enraged Barney Frank—Obama publicly exuded calm, staying out on the stump and pledging to show up at the debate even if his opponent didn’t. “It is going to be part of the president’s job to deal with more than one thing at once,” he explained. His steady performance cemented the decisive contrast of the campaign: No Drama Obama versus the Erratic McCain. As Obama’s campaign communications director Anita Dunn later told Alter, “In the ten days between the Lehman collapse and the first debate, everyone suddenly saw him as the next president.”
But Obama’s eschewing of drama amid the current economic crisis is having the opposite effect. Now, his eerie calm has led to accusations, lobbed from both the right and the left, that he’s fatally out of touch. Part of the frustration owes to the fact that Obama is no longer a mere presidential aspirant; what’s more, while the last economic crisis was triggered by bad behavior on Wall Street, the current market panic was brought on by Washington dysfunction. But there’s something else going on. In 2008, Obama’s lack of drama appealed to a fantasy formed in response to eight years of George W. Bush. It wasn’t the familiar liberal dream of an unrepentantly lefty president (played by Martin Sheen) who offers stem-winding speeches that move Americans to progressive positions, although Obama’s lofty rhetoric did encourage some of that. Rather, it was a fantasy about competence and the belief that a rational, deliberate “reality-based” approach to governing, led by the experts the previous administration had spurned, could finally solve the country’s problems.
Obama’s two and a half years in office have crushed those hopes. His very rational and expert-driven health-care package only seemed to spur the GOP to greater depths of irrationality—so much so that he can’t even get the resulting Republican Congress to agree to lopsided policy compromises like his hoped-for grand bargain on debt reduction. Indeed, Obama doesn’t look like he’s doing much to respond to the current meltdown because there may not be much left he can do, with further significant stimulus measures a nonstarter on the Hill.
That doesn’t leave Obama with much of an affirmative economic case to make. But what he can do, as he did during the debt-ceiling fight, is again sell his placid persona, and bet that the Republican side will help him make the case that its proposed fixes present too grave a risk. Going into 2012, though it may drive his supporters mad, Obama’s best strategy just might be the one he’s always followed.