Barack Obama, especially, is the object of inaugural good feelings. He has assembled an impressive White House and Cabinet team. The country is clearly in his corner. With the economy gasping, and two wars dragging on sullenly, even many Republicans who ordinarily might enjoy seeing Obama fail now root for him to succeed. The stakes are simply too great.
Amid all these high hopes, it may seem needlessly sour to point out why expectations must be kept in check. But it is also realistic.
Here are seven reasons to be skeptical of Obama’s chances — and the Washington establishment he now leads:
1. The genius fallacy
There is no disputing Obama has built a Cabinet of sharp and experienced public officials. His staff, especially on national security and economic matters, is often praised as brilliant — and that’s by Republicans.
But recent history teaches us to be wary of the larger-than-life Washington figures supposedly striding across history’s stage. Consider the economy. Everyone seems to agree Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner are smart, vastly qualified to manage and repair the economy.
Everyone was saying the exact same things about the two economic geniuses of the 1990s: Robert Rubin and Alan Greenspan. Now Rubin has been reduced to making excuses for his involvement in high-risk investments and for helping oversee the demise of Citigroup, which lost $10 billion in the past three months alone. The onetime oracular Greenspan has admitted to Congress that his once-revered economic philosophy had “a flaw,” and many blame him for turning a blind eye to the housing bubble.
As it happens, the Obama economic team is full of Rubin protégés, including Geithner and Summers. Geithner had to recently admit he failed to pay taxes on a big chunk of income — as part of his confirmation process to run tax policy and the Internal Revenue Service. As president of the New York Fed, he was integrally involved in the decision not to rescue Lehman Bros., which many see, in retrospect, as a grievous error.
The reception of the Obama economic team recalls the reception of President George W. Bush’s foreign policy team eight years ago. Many Democrats applauded the experience of Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
As Bush named his national security team in 2000, The New York Times editorialized: “Putting superstar players on the court does not always guarantee harmony or success.” In retrospect, that was an understatement, indeed.
2. The herd instinct
The most bipartisan tradition in Washington is to laud bipartisanship, even while lamenting that there is not enough of it.
But the instinct for bipartisanship overlooks an inconvenient fact: Some of Washington’s biggest blunders occur when the government moves to do big things with big support. Bush won the much-regretted Iraq war resolution of October 2002 with strong Democratic backing.
The current economic crisis produces similar pressure to get on board the train — never mind for sure where it’s going.
It is easy to sympathize with the temptation. Top officials on Obama’s team told us in recent days that things are much worse than most people appreciate. The Obama staff and top lawmakers are getting stern warnings that the banking system in particular is extremely fragile and could collapse. So they are moving with amazing speed to pump money into the economy.
First up is the stimulus package that could top $900 billion. It is a mind-numbing number rarely contemplated in U.S. history — and yet it might not work. There are no guarantees people will spend money the government doles out or that it will be enough to ffset miserable economic performance elsewhere.
The history isn’t encouraging.
Rewind just a few months back. Republicans and Democrats alike said the best of many bad options was to approve $700 billion to prop up banks, mainly to thaw the credit freeze and juice the economy. Half the money is gone now. Many banks took the cash and sat on it. Some used it increase lending. But much of it was wasted or unaccounted for. Now Washington wants to spend the rest of it.
And a top Hill aide told Politico’s David Rogers that Democrats will probably need to request even more.
3. We are broke.
The past several months have produced a rare convergence. Something that politicians of both parties find pleasurable — spending money — has overlapped with what economists and policy experts of all ideological stripes said is urgently necessary. As “Saturday Night Live’s” Church Lady used to say, “How convenient.”
One month from now, Democrats will likely have passed the massive stimulus bill and Obama will have signed it into law. The new Treasury Department will be well on its way to spending the second $350 billion chunk of the $700 billion bank bailout fund.
After this rush of activity, the ability to spend during the balance of Obama’s first term — never mind if there is a second — will be sharply constrained.
Instead, the new administration and lawmakers on Capitol Hill will awaken to another first: the prospect of the national deficit approaching $2 trillion. For most, these numbers are simply too big to ponder. But ponder this: This country has never reckoned with deficits like these.
Wait, it gets worse. Remember those entitlement programs the elderly and poor need more than ever: Social Security and Medicare? In budget terms, they are more troubled than ever.
Social Security’s surpluses “begin to decline in 2011 and then turn into rapidly growing deficits as the baby boom generation retires,” according to one recent report. “Medicare’s financial status,” the report said, “is even worse.”
Basically, the government needs more money than ever at a time when people are losing jobs, income and confidence.
4. Words, words, words
Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, though starkly different men, both viewed the presidency as pre-eminently a decision-making job. Clinton often waved away speech drafts bloated with lofty language by saying: “Words, words, words.”
Obama seems to have a different view of the presidency. He thinks that the right decisions can be reached by putting reasonable and enlightened people together and reaching a consensus. He believes his job as president is to educate and inspire, largely matters of style.
He knows he is good with words. He knows he has great style. So that’s why he projects exceptional confidence in his ability to do the job.
We don’t know yet how justified Obama is in his self-confidence — or how naive.
But he is almost certain to face many tests, probably imminently, in which the test will be Obama’s ability to act quickly and shrewdly — and not merely describe his actions smoothly or impress people with nuance. And an unlike a governor — who must decide what’s in a budget and what gets cut, or whether a person to be executed at midnight should be spared — Obama has not made many decisions for which the consequences affect more than himself.
5. He rarely challenges the home team.
Obama frequently talks of the need to transcend partisanship. And he invokes his support for charter schools — a not-terribly-controversial idea — as evidence that he is willing to challenge Democratic special interest groups.
In fact, there are few examples of him making decisions during the campaign or the transition that offended his own party’s constituencies, or using rhetoric that challenged his wn supporters to rethink assumptions or yield on a favored cause.
Has Obama ever delivered a “Sister Souljah speech”? Ever stood up to organized labor in the way that Clinton did in passing North American Free Trade Agreement?
This is not a good sign. By Obama’s lights, the national interest usually coincides with his personal interest. Back to you, Church Lady.
6. Everyone is winging it.
No matter how much confidence Obama or other politicians project, the reality is the current economic crisis has totally scrambled the intellectual assumptions of almost every policymaker. People who used to bemoan deficits want to spend like crazy. Improvisation is the only proper response. But the chances that improvisation will take the country to exactly the right destination — without some serious wrong turns along the way — seem very slight.
7. The watchdogs are dozing.
The big media companies that once invested in serious accountability journalism are shells of their former selves. The Tribune Co. — in other words, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune — has slashed its Washington staff by more than half. Newspaper chains such as Cox are fleeing D.C. altogether.
The end result: There are few reporters in this country doing the kind of investigative reporting that hold government officials’ feet to the fire. Think back eight years to the pre-Iraq war reporting and consider the words of Scott McClellan in his otherwise humdrum book.
“The collapse of the administration’s rationales for war, which became apparent months after our invasion, should never have come as such a surprise,” McClellan wrote. “In this case, the ‘liberal media’ didn’t live up to its reputation. If it had, the country would have been better served.”
Rigorous reporting is even more important when you have one-party rule in Washington. Democrats, like Republicans, are simply less likely to scrutinize a president of their own. The end result here: Don’t expect the Democratic Congress to investigate the Obama administration or hold a bunch of tough oversight hearings. That means the only real check on Obama is the same one it’s always been — the voters.