Commentary Magazine


Lessons To Learn–Quickly

It might not have been intended as such, but the Washington Post’s recent batch of op-eds provides a road map for the President-elect of several significant pitfalls that lie ahead.

From Amity Shlaes comes a warning to avoid excessive experimentation which roils markets and freezes economy activity:

In 1932, stunned market players and citizens wanted to know what the new rules were. They voted for a party with a platform so moderate it could have been written by today’s Concord Coalition: stability, sound money, balanced budgets. That was the Democratic Party, led by Roosevelt.

Many of FDR’s initial plans did bring stability: His first Treasury secretary worked to sort out banks with the outgoing Hoover administration in a fashion so fair that an observer noted that those present “had forgotten to be Republicans or Democrats.” By creating deposit insurance, FDR reduced bank runs. His Securities Act of 1933 laid the ground for a transparent national stock market. Equities shot up.

.    .   .

But other policies were more arbitrary. Using emergency powers, FDR yanked the country off the gold standard. Both American and international markets looked forward to a London conference at which a new monetary accord was to be struck among nations. Over the course of the conference, though, FDR changed orders to his emissaries multiple times. Some days he was the internationalist, sending wires about international currency coordination. Other days he was the cowboy, declaring that all that mattered was what the dollar bought in farm states. The conference foundered.

The arbitrary quality of other initiatives reinforced concerns. The New Deal centerpiece, the National Recovery Administration, helped some businesses compete and criminalized others for the same behavior. Sometimes Roosevelt goaded federal prosecutors into harassing corporate executives. Other times, he schmoozed the same execs at the White House. In 1936, FDR pushed through deficit spending. In 1937, he was Mr. Budget Hawk.Uncertain, markets froze. Businesses refused to hire or invest in equipment. Unemployment stayed stuck in the teens. The ‘deal’ part of the New Deal phrase was problematic; businesses didn’t want individual favors, they wanted clear laws for all. Industrialist Ernest Weir summed up what his community was desperate for FDR to do: “Above all to make the program clear and then stick to it.”

The message: be steady.

From Michael Gerson comes a warning to avoid the fawning of the media elite in addressing Iran’s nuclear ambitions and fighting the war in Iraq:

Though he ran as a peace candidate, Obama will be a war president. In these likely challenges of 2009, he deserves more than an infatuation that turns to disillusionment. He will need a broad commitment to difficult national goals involving considerable risk and sacrifice — public patience and fortitude that were not always evident during the longest days of the Iraq conflict.

The message: don’t chase the praise of fickle public opinion.

And Ruth Marcus makes the all-too obvious point that trying Bush administration officials for “war crimes” would be a disaster. The message: ignore the partisan mob.

Upon initial reflection, none of this might seem to come naturally to President Obama. After all, he won election by promising lots of change, appealing to the popular anti-war sentiment, and bonding with the netroot base in his party. So it might be a strain for him to do fewer rather than more things, ignore popular opinion, and eschew partisanship. But that’s the difference between campaigning and governing.

And  his selection of personnel, his apparent willingness to allow parts of his agenda slip to the back burner (e.g. tax hikes), and his moderate rhetoric during the transition have given reason to hope that none of this will be too much of a stretch.

But as he moves to the White House he will also lose the luxury of remoteness and inactivity. That may be the most difficult challenge of all. Keeping mum on the bailout of AIG, pondering endlessly the Russian invasion, remaining out of reach to comment on Blago-gate, and literally hiding from the press during the Gaza incursion seemed to fit his natural inclinations. He’s never been one to enjoy mixing it up with the press and he has often evidenced a thin skin for criticism.

That approach may have worked in a campaign (with the help of the compliant media rooting for his opponent’s defeat), but it’s a recipe for a rocky presidency. He will, in addition to his many policy dilemmas and management tasks, need to learn and practice the skill of prompt and definitive decision-making. After all, in just a few weeks there won’t be anywhere to hide or anyone to whom to defer.

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