How do you like your economic reassurance?
I suppose it depends on which country you live in. Here in Canada, or as some like to think of it, this magic, peaceable, and semi-prosperous haven in a heartless world, our leaders seem to have gotten it right this time amid the plunging markets and cries of “beware the double dip!”
Both Prime Minister Stephen Harper, off on a South American business trip but still weighing in with a calm, there’s more to the economy than the stock markets approach, and his Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, managing on the national news to seem both cautious and confident, have done a good job reassuring Canadians that we are still in a sound position to weather the financial turmoil. “We will stay the course. We will stay on track. We will continue with the plan,” Mr. Flaherty said with conviction at one press scrum.
Their public approach, no matter what they might be thinking privately, has been so convincing that a friend of mine who is anything but Conservative said of Mr. Harper: “I have to admit he may be the right guy to take us through this – it’s his brief, after all.”
Meanwhile, down in the United States, that not so peaceable and prosperous kingdom (but still, let’s not forget, the biggest economy in the world), President Barack Obama is getting as pummelled as the markets. He just can’t seem to deliver either passion or reassurance, not to mention a solid strategy.
The psychological needs of a nation in crisis are exactly the same as individuals in personal crises: We want to be reassured that it won’t always be like this, and we want to know that there is a plan to get us out of the mess. What’s the first step? And the one after that?
But the truth is, we don’t really want our economic reassurance to come just from our leaders and their words. We want it in bank statements and investment reports that tell us we're all not going to be dead broke, and we want it in job offers and promotions and startups that allow us to think we’re “safe for another year.”
Woe betide the leader who cannot address those needs and then even fails at weaving a web of reassurance. “Withholder-in-chief” was one headline in The New York Times, while many letters to the editor summed up even the Democrats’ (especially the Democrats’) profound disappointment in a leader they had counted on to be a transformational president, but who has instead tepidly presided over the daycare antics of a divided Congress during the debt-ceiling debate.
“… President Obama has become a weather vane. He was supposed to be the wind,” wrote one obviously crushed woman.
The whole point of inspiring people to prevail despite their deepest fears is that it ennobles them. But it’s impossible to inspire a public who sees their politicians as selfish, ideologically dug-in louts.
Like many others, I wanted Mr. Obama to bang his fist and tell the world he’s angry about the useless game of ideological chicken being played in Washington. I wanted him to say to the American public: You deserve better than this. But I guess that’s awkward when you’re part of the mess.
If nothing else, he needs a new speechwriter. In times of crisis, cadence matters as much as content. Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King proved that, with words that many school kids can repeat verbatim, they are that mesmerizing and inspirational.
Where are Mr. Obama’s resounding words? Instead the words of others – some of them a tad overreaching – fill the void. Former New York Times columnist Frank Rich, normally the voice of reasoned liberalism, opined on the website of his new employer, New York magazine, that while the recent downgrading of the U.S. economy by Standard and Poor’s was “meaningless,” it was still “kindling for panic.” It’s “like Archduke Ferdinand's assassination in 1914 – though let's hope it doesn't lead to that magnitude of apocalypse,” said Mr. Rich.
That’s a strong verbal jolt. Let’s hope that ripping the epaulets off the American economy by one suspect rating agency doesn’t lead to what is now being referred to on Twitter as “Obamaclypse.”
There is now some wistful fantasizing that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, once Barack Obama’s formidable opponent, would have made a better leader after all – harder nosed and smarter on the economy.
One academic who wants Hillary to challenge Barack (“no spine and no balls”) in 2012, was quoted on The Daily Beast website saying “now it’s time to elect someone who can play hardball, who understands how to be ruthless, who will be a real ... uh ... tough negotiator in office. There won’t be any debate about Hillary’s, er, ‘man-package.’”
Excuse me. I seem to remember there was a fair amount of questioning (some of it sexist) of Hillary’s competence during the campaign, that had she been at the helm during this latest downgrading denouement, the cries of “she can’t handle this” might have been more deafening than those about Obama.
The American electorate, lacking more solid evidence of recovery, will need to hear a better and more reassuring story than the one they are currently hearing from Barack Obama (especially if he wants to be re-elected in 2012.)
In an economic crisis, leaders really do have to come up with the right words to pave the way to recovery. You might say they are words you can take to the bank.