Sunday, February 08, 2009


Dead ringers.

ON JULY 15th, 1979, PRESIDENT Jimmy Carter made a televised address to the nation that later became known as “the malaise speech.” America’s economic problems were bad and getting worse. Lines at gas stations, inflation, rising unemployment. The speech that President Carter gave that day was presumably meant to inspire, but ultimately fell on many people’s ears as a litany of what was wrong with Americans and with America.

Carter seemed to be blaming Americans for creating their own troubles with their lack of confidence and spirit. It came to define his presidency for many. Of-course, he had already been president for two and a half years when he made this speech. The smiling peanut-farmer from Georgia had become transformed for many into a sour, pinched and pained version of himself. In 1980, Americans chose another smiling former governor as president. Ronald Reagan’s optimism, however, proved considerably more resilient.

President Barack Obama has been president for two and a half weeks. Yet, part of the reason that his honeymoon has been so short (about one day by my count, i.e., Inauguration Day) is that for many, in the media as well as the populace, he effectively became president the day after the election last November. Since then, so many wanted him to be president already, and to shoo George W. Bush out the door, that it feels like he’s already been in office for about three months.

And yet, this President Obama we have just doesn’t seem like the Barack Obama that won the election. The American electorate, it has been said, always goes with the perceived “sunnier” candidate when voting for president, and you can make a very good case for that. There certainly was little contest on that basis between Barack Obama and John McCain. Obama spoke constantly of hope, avoided controversial wedge issues, and projected one of the most unflappably pleasant dispositions of any presidential candidate since the dawn of the TV age.

His motto was, famously, “Yes we can.” Yet, the day after the election, Barack Obama turned on a dime. Suddenly, he started telling us, things were not only very bad, but were going to be getting a lot worse. Inevitably.

It was easy enough to see the point of this move, tactically speaking. He needed to lower people’s expectations of the coming New Jerusalem that would arrive with his inauguration, just a tad. He needed to set the bar lower with regard to how success would be defined for him in his first few months. And—more controversially, but, I am convinced, truly—'he wanted to foster to some extent a sense of crisis, as it would assist him and the Democratic congress in quickly passing sweeping measures to advance their political agenda.

Read it all.

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