“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, March 4, 1933

The economy is a steaming hot mess, God knows, and maybe the cause of our joblessness crisis is some mix of Bush administration policies, GOP obstructionism to sabotage Barack Obama and the Obama administration’s own miscalculations and reticence. Or three decades of trickle-down economics, or automation, or outsourcing or corporate greed and corruption, or all of that and more, but…

One can argue ad nauseum about what got us here and what’s keeping us here. But there is another factor at work—no doubt secondary to concrete policies, legislation, economic theory and business practice. And yet a factor nonetheless:


No, I’m not saying it’s all in our heads. But some measure of the economy does seem to depend on psychological and emotional issues. Optimism, pessimism, hope and fear help drive consumer and business confidence, hiring and firing, the stock market, et. al. The news right now is bleak—indeed if you watch cable, or read print and blog editorials on all sides of the political spectrum, the prevailing view is not only that our recovery is stalled—or, in Paul Krugman’s view, that it never really began—but that the future is all but hopeless.

The jobs aren’t coming back . Government is broken. The debt deal screwed us royally.  Obama still hasn’t “pivoted” and even if he does, he’s helpless against gridlock and an opposition determined to prevent him from achieving victories of any kind. This inertia will continue if Obama wins reelection, and if he doesn’t, the Teabag-dipped GOP actually will drive us off the cliff, or ensure continued prosperity for the wealthy on the backs of a vast underclass—while wiping out the middle class entirely.

We have descended from Woody Allen’s “miserable” into the “horrible.” Our economy should be in a hospice.

All of this may be true. Or perhaps only part of it—these are predictions, after all, and we’ve certainly seen how off-the-mark those can be. But meanwhile, we have sunk into utter despair.

My question is, how much of this psychology of gloom and futility is self-reinforcing and self-fulfilling—however slightly? How much is the “narrative”—to use a pet pundit phrase—of hopelessness and despair helping to engender even more hopelessness and despair?

I’m no Polyanna—my wife can tell you that—and I am inclined to anxiety and pessimism. We know how bad the economy is. (Personally, I’ve lost one job to downsizing—even though my employer was raking in huge profits—and was lucky to find another.) We see businesses closing around us and we’re plenty scared. Our fears are not “nameless, unreasoning and unjustified.” But to hear our punditocracy, we might as well take a black capsule.

Of course, journalists should—at least outside Fox News—report the truth. The latest employment figures indicate 117,000 jobs added and that the jobless rate ticked down a point to 9.1. As we’re told, it’s still lousy, but not as godawful as last month and not as cataclysmic as feared.

But I wonder what would have happened if, say, the Labor Dept. had lied its ass off and cooked the numbers—some say it does already, but I mean, think really big.  What if we’d been told the economy added 317,000 jobs and that unemployment dipped to 8.7—and a similar lie next month and the next?

Would people start feeling better—I mean, the people who do have relatively safe jobs and some income to spend? Would pundits start harrumphing about a recovery revival—and help inspire just a bit more confidence among consumers and businesses? We’ve seen how some of our flat-earth friends on the far Right, talk radio and Fox invent their own facts, rewrite history to serve their ideological narrative.

What if we rewrote the present? The Big Lie used not for hate-and-fear-mongering—but as the long-awaited Second Stimulus?

Before Bellevue sends an ambulance for me, know that I’m kidding.

Okay, maybe half-kidding.


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One of the reasons 67 or so million of us voted for Barack Obama in 2008 was his cool, intelligent, rational demeanor, a welcome change from years of GOP saber-rattling, fear-mongering, bumper-sticker politicking and faux-patriotic bombast. Obama’s Zen focus and “no drama” credo contrasted sharply with John McCain’s erratic truculence; the McCain-Palin ticket promised an itchy finger on the button, with a grinning, winking idiot in the wings.

But at this time of crises, upheavals and catastrophes, domestic and foreign, the President and his political handlers seem to have missed something crucial in his job description. And I say this as a strong supporter, who thinks he’s done an excellent job substantively, and would rather have him in the White House than any Republican, with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln. In an interview with Matt Lauer during last year’s BP oil disaster, POTUS said the presidency “is not theater” and that he “doesn’t always have time to perform for the benefit of cable news shows.”

There is something admirable in that, I suppose. But I think President Obama has it wrong. Look back over the past 90 years, since electronic media brought the presidency into America’s living rooms. Who were the most successful chief executives, electorally and in terms of achieving their goals?

Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.

As far apart as they were ideologically, those two Presidents shared one common gift: They were masters of political theater, using their office not only as a “bully pulpit,” but as a stage. They grasped that a flair for the dramatic was an indispensable quality in a leader. As Jonathan Alter recounts in The Defining Moment, his excellent book on Roosevelt’s election and early presidency, FDR once said to Orson Welles, “Orson, you know, you and I are the two best actors in America.”  And Reagan, of course, actually was an actor.

Privately, both those men are said to have shied away from intimacy; there was something unknowable about them. But publicly both knew how to bond with the country, to be empathetic, to make Americans feel that they cared (Bill Clinton, another two-term President who remains a political rock star 10 years after leaving office, may be the grand master of empathy).

FDR’s speeches and “fireside chats” were tours de force that rallied the nation; not only did he try endless strategies to lift America out of the Great Depression he made sure Americans knew it—made sure it looked like he was doing something.

As for Reagan, he, was the Great Communicator—he, too, knew how to instill confidence. And his “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech was so effective that some worshippers credit him with winning the Cold War single-handed.

Both presidents made missteps (as a liberal, of course, I’ll argue that Reagan made more of them). But in the minds of all but the ideologues on either end of the spectrum, they are remembered for their successes—and perceived successes.

With his disdain for political theater and public show, and apparent preference for behind-the-scenes problem-solving and negotiation, President Obama is dismissing the “making it look like you’re doing something” part of the job—and he’s missed several opportunities to do so. As Rahm Emanuel famously said, never let a crisis go to waste. The past two years have brought huge crises that cried out for the president to show some stage presence— something more than the occasional briefing to announce that he’s “monitoring the situation.”

The BP oil spill was a golden opportunity for President Obama to show that he’s not George W. Bush, to immediately say he would take control, to declare war on the disaster, to get down there, roll up his sleeves—and yes, do some photo ops. Instead, he took a couple of family vacations. And while a presidential vacation—especially in this communications age—is always a working one, you have to look like you’re engaged.

The pundits call it “optics.” The explosions in the Mideast and the Japanese catastrophe were two other recent instances that cried out for a show of passion. Instead, we saw President Obama offer up his college basketball picks and celebrate St. Paddy’s Day.

Domestically, the president has been less than Rooseveltian in conveying his impassioned determination to solve the jobs crisis—or look like he’s solving the jobs crisis.

As for the upheavals in the Midwest, where Republican governors like Scott Walker, John Kasich and Rick Snyder seem determined to crush the middle class under the weight of tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, I understand why President Obama has been laying back, not injecting himself into these state fights. It has allowed the blossoming of a huge movement that has energized the Democratic base, and pulled blue-collar and middle class “Reagan Democrats” away from the GOP.

But something like Snyder’s attempt to turn Michigan into a corporate monarchy seems to beg for some kind of comment or show of interest. Still, the jury’s still out—this may be one instance where the President’s detachment works, as GOP overreach makes the party toxic in the electorally critical heartland.

History may prove that on substance, President Obama has generally followed the right course. But in the short term, if purely out of political self –interest, he could learn a few things from Roosevelt and Ronnie about White House stagecraft.

Mr. President, tear down this wall—the wall between you and the rest of us.

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…and Madison and Jackson and Polk and Wilson and…..

W.H. Harrison and Taylor and Fillmore and….

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In this darkest hours of Barack Obama’s presidency, as he suffers all manner of attack from Right, Center, Left—and the inane alternative universe of Sarah Palin—he and my fellow Obamians can take comfort in the  slings and arrows hurled at his three greatest predecessors. Some of them should sound eerily familiar.


“If ever a nation was debauched by a man, the American nation has been debauched by Washington. If ever a nation was deceived by a man, the American nation has been deceived by Washington…Let it serve to be a warning that no man may be an idol...”

Philadelphia Aurora, 1796

You commenced your presidential career by encouraging and swallowing the grossest adulation, and you traveled America, from one end to the other, to put yourself in the way of receiving it…

“The character which Mr. Washington has attempted to act in this world is a sort of non-describable cameleon (sic) colored thing, called prudence… The world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an imposter, whether you have abandoned good principles or whether you ever had any…”

Thomas Paine, 1796


“I never did see or converse with so weak and imbecile a man; the weakest man I ever knew in high place. If I wanted to paint a despot, a man perfectly regardless of every right of the people, I would paint the hideous, apelike form of Abraham Lincoln.”

Sen. Willard Saulsbury (D-Del.)

“The President is nothing more than a well-meaning baboon. He is the original gorilla.

Gen. George B. McLellan

(Lincoln’s Democratic opponent in 1864)


“It is regrettable that Giuseppe Zangara [who attempted to assassinate President-elect Roosevelt in 1933] hit the wrong man [Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, who died from his wounds].”

Journalist Westbrook Pegler

“FDR proposes to destroy the right to elect your own representatives, to talk politics on street corners, to march in political parades, to attend the church of your faith, to be tried by jury and to own property.”

Alf Landon, GOP Presidential candidate, 1936

“Along with currency manipulation, the New Deal introduced to Americans the spectacle of Fascist dictation to business, labor and agriculture.”

Herbert Hoover, from his memoirs, 1952

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