Straight Talk

Even before President Barack Obama addressed a joint session of Congress last month, his national intelligence director, retired Navy Admiral Dennis Blair, testified on Capitol Hill that “the global economic crisis is the greatest near-term security threat to the United States.” So it was no surprise that the new president’s first address to Congress underscored that theme.

From the House rostrum, the president said he wished “to speak frankly and directly to the men and women who sent us here.” And for the next fifty minutes, he did just that, offering the most concise, candid assessment of the state of the union in recent memory. “Now is the time,” Obama announced, “to jump-start job creation, restart lending, and invest in areas like energy, health care, and education that will grow our economy, even as we make hard choices to bring down our deficit.” As Congressman Jim Cooper, a fiscal conservative from Tennessee, remarked, “The American people have been denied the truth for many years. They are willing to take their medicine if it leads to a stronger country.”

“The day of reckoning has arrived,” the president declared. “The time to take charge of our future is here.” For a country accustomed to false nostrums of quick military victory and deficit spending without increased taxation, his was a bracing analysis. The circumstances surrounding the president’s speech were much like the context of FDR’s first fireside chat in 1933. As then, these are dire, uncertain times. As then (at least according to a snap poll), citizens responded the way a weary patient might upon hearing a sound treatment plan from a trusted physician. “We will rebuild,” President Obama said to congressional applause; “we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.”

Reassuring words, but how? The remedies the president offered two days later in his budget outline—achieving energy self-sufficiency, health-care coverage for all, and expanded access to college—will prove expensive and daunting. Old habits and Washington inertia will resist such initiatives. Furthermore, the economy may be even worse than the president’s economic triage team realizes. Financial deterioration, at home and abroad, is deepening. The road ahead is likely to prove long and difficult. Recovery will demand flexible leadership, international cooperation, and newfound endurance.

At moments of crisis, the best the nation can hope for is smart, engaged leaders whose policies and philosophy are practical and generous, and whose temperament and demeanor inspire trust and hope. That is why the country elected Barack Obama, and the new president seems focused and adept. He sets high goals and listens, but is not afraid to make bold decisions. He evidently relishes a personal challenge. Yet no one can be sure that he has made the right decisions. His first six weeks included signing a massive economic stimulus plan; outlining a bold ten-year budget; taking on major issues such as climate control, health care, education, the use of torture, and Afghanistan; displaying uncommon candor (“I screwed up,” in reference to Tom Daschle’s tax problems); confronting entrenched interests (energy conglomerates and agribusiness); and appealing to personal accountability: “With a plan of this scale comes enormous responsibility to get it right.” For the president to get it right, he must keep in touch with those suffering most in this severe recession, and remain open to legitimate criticism and suggestions. His call for stricter oversight of government-assistance programs is crucial. Government expenditures based on overly optimistic projections about the economy will have to be reanalyzed and recalibrated. Eventually, the middle class as well as the top 2 percent of earners will have to pay higher taxes if we are, over the long term, to reduce the deficit at the same time we implement universal health-care coverage.

Obama has rejected the false view that government is the chief source of the nation’s problems, and that increasing economic inequality is sustainable in a democracy. Inept, ideologically driven government over the past thirty years contributed to the nation’s woes on both counts. Obama is right that government has a fundamental role “in laying the foundations for our common prosperity.” But guaranteeing justice and economic well-being for all requires not only a commitment to the common good but a well-coordinated program of sustained oversight. Citizens want to know how their tax dollars are being spent. Our present straits require a basic reordering of national priorities. The new president has shown the willingness and fortitude to address such a challenge. He will need determined support to see it through.

Published in the 2009-03-13 issue: 
Also by this author
Commonweal in the 1990s

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Books
Books