Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Grand Narrative.

Mickey Kaus has a funny piece about "saving" the Obama presidency. It was written after this piece appeared in The Financial Times. The point being that "fixing" presidencies follows a time-honored script and that the last box checked, at least in consensus media circles, is "hire David Gergen."

I have no idea if President Obama is properly staffed or not, but he has surrounded himself with serious people. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, CIA Director Leon Panetta, Paul Volcker, Larry Summers, Tim Geitner, Ben Bernanke, Hillary Clinton, et alia, are all capable hands and they have been there and back. Their experience gives the Obama Administration real heft. The White House senior staff seems thin and parochial (and weirdly controlling) but they are where they are because the President wants them there. If he didn't want them there, they'd be beavering away over at the Democratic National Committee.

It's not a staff issue that is causing the President's political deflation. And it's not a communications issue (as in: if only the Obama Administration communicated their ideas better, everything would be okay). It's not even a political issue; the GOP doesn't have a national act to speak of and Democrats continue to hold solid majorities in both Houses of Congress. The Obama Administration's problem is narrative.

Specifically, the Grand Narrative of our time is The Reckoning and the Restructuring. The Reckoning is all this debt coming home to roost. The Restructuring is what we're going to do about it.

The Reckoning is plain for all to see. Consumers are broke, companies are reeling under massive debt loads, and the US government is underwater as never before. Compounding these problems is an avalanche of unfunded liabilities that will soon come due. To cite just one small example, for the first time in its history, Social Security will run cash negative this year. The cost of Medicare is set to explode as baby boomers retire. You know all this. There's no point repeating all the scary numbers.

The Reckoning requires restructuring. Restructuring is not avoidable, it is inevitable. The sooner we do it, the less painful it will be for all concerned. Specifically, we must decide how to make our pension system (Social Security) and our current national health care system (Medicare and Medicaid) sustainable. We must restructure our debt. We must get 15% more performance out of our military on 15% less budget. We must get 25% more performance out of all other government services on 25% less expenditure.

In addition, we need to think about what taxes to raise, whether we sell land, whether we acquire nation-states or territories (Africa states? Siberian land?), whether we merge with Canada to form a more robust (and energy independent) mega-nation. These are the big issues of US restructuring. And they are all on the table.

Except they are not. The Obama Administration keeps talking at us like its 1998 and we can have a "green" jobs program and national health insurance and "cap and trade" legislation and $250 million criminal proceedings for homicidal Islamic psychopaths in downtown Manhattan. We don't have $250 million for the KSM trial in Manhattan. Everybody knows that except, apparently, the Obama Administration.

Until President Obama engages the Grand Narrative of our time, and makes it his own, he will remain disconnected from the broad national interest ("interest" in the sense of what people are interested in and "interest" in the sense of what is best for the country). This is not just another recession. This is not just a fraying at the ends. This is a crisis of high throw weight and terrifying potential consequences. It's important that we muddle through. It matters. The President needs to start the restructuring by talking openly and honestly about what it might entail.