Ten pundits and politicians whose prognostications for this year completely missed the mark.
- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy
“I do know this. At the end of this first year of Congress, there will be an energy bill on the president‘s desk.“
—Rahm Emanuel on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, April 19, 2009
The bill the White House chief of staff was optimistically referring to, the American Clean Energy and Security Act, passed the House in June and included the cap-and-trade system for limiting carbon emissions that Emanuel described as “our goal.”
The White House had hoped to have an energy bill passed by the time Obama traveled to the climate change conference in Copenhagen, but the legislation has stalled in the Senate and been largely marginalized by the ongoing debate over health-care reform. Senate leaders are now hoping to take up the debate again in the spring, leaving the president able to make only provisional commitments in Denmark.
“Declaring that his work is done, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke will announce he‘ll leave the Fed upon the expiration of his four-year term as chairman on Jan. 31, 2010. While mostly not his fault, the recession has hurt his standing with the Obama Administration — and it also has worn him down on a personal level. He‘ll be succeeded by Lawrence Summers, former Treasury Secretary under the Clinton Administration.“
—BusinessWeek, Jan. 2, 2009
Obama announced on Aug. 25 that he was reappointing Bernanke — Foreign Policy‘s top Global Thinker of 2009 — to a second term, praising him for his “calm and wisdom” and crediting him with putting “the brakes on our economic freefall.” Bernanke is facing a tough sledding in his Senate confirmation hearings, but his support from the Obama administration is robust, and, for what it’s worth, Time magazine has just named him its “person of the year.”
“While the precise impact of the fall resurgence of 2009-H1N1 influenza is impossible to predict, a plausible scenario is that the epidemic could: produce infection of 30-50% of the U.S. population this fall and winter, … lead to as many as 1.8 million U.S. hospital admissions during the epidemic, … [and] cause between 30,000 and 90,000 deaths in the United States.“
—Report to the President on U.S. Preparations for the 2009-H1N1 Influenza, President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Aug. 7, 2009
Although U.S. President Barack Obama’s science advisors were careful to point out that the exact impact of H1N1 couldn’t be predicted, no other possibilities besides the “plausible scenario” above were presented in their report. The dire numbers, particularly the 50 percent infection rate, were widely reported in the media. The reality turned out to be far milder. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this fall there were 33,490 confirmed hospitalizations, 1,445 deaths, and 56,410 cases from all types of flu total as of Dec. 5. A bad flu season to be sure, but nothing close to what the advisors were expecting. Visits to the doctor for swine flu declined throughout November and early December.
“The economy went into freefall and is still falling and we don‘t know where the bottom will be until we get there and there‘s no sign that we are anywhere near a bottom.“
—George Soros at Columbia University, Feb 20, 2009
Billionaire investor George Soros has a reputation for prognostication and is widely credited with having seen the current recession coming. But he got a bit overzealous in early 2009, declaring the crash the “collapse of the financial system.” He also dismissed the Obama administration’s stimulus measures as insufficient, saying “radical and unorthodox policy measures” were needed to prevent a financial meltdown on the scale of the Great Depression. However, just one month after his fire-and-brimstone speech at Columbia, Soros told Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, “The economic freefall has been stopped, the collapse of the financial system averted. National economic stimulus programs are starting to take effect. The downward dynamic is easing.” So much for no end in sight. Soros feels a global recovery is likely in 2010.
Chris Wallace: “Best guess: Will the president end up giving McChrystal the troops he wants, or will he change the war strategy?“
Charles Krauthammer: “I think he doesn‘t and McChrystal resigns.”
On Dec. 1, Obama announced the deployment of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. If you count the 7,000 troops promised by NATO, the new levels are close to the 40,000 requested by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Kabul. After the announcement, the general issued a statement saying that Obama had “provided me with a clear military mission and the resources to accomplish our task.” Undeterred, Krauthammer — who has made FP‘s worst predictions list for the second straight year — blasted Obama in a Washington Post op-ed for ignoring McChrystal’s advice.
“Brown will be tempted to fight on, but if he is well advised and sensible, he will see that this cannot go on. He will concede what Tony Blair also eventually also conceded when the pressure grew too great — that he has no wish to be an impediment to Labour‘s electoral success. He will step down soon, maybe today, certainly this weekend.“
—Martin Kettle, The Guardian, June 5, 2009
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s already precarious political fortunes took yet another turn for the worse in June when, amid a growing scandal over MPs’ expense accounts, three of his cabinet ministers resigned one after another — the last of whom, pensions secretary and close Brown ally James Purnell, called on the British prime minister to “stand aside to give our party a fighting chance of winning.” Kettle’s paper, the staunchly pro-Labour Guardian, recommended in an editorial that Brown step down. But after a failed revolt of Labour backbenchers and a cabinet reshuffle, Brown managed to hang on and now appears likely to stay in office until the bitter end of his term.
“I‘m very pleased to announce that we‘ve had a breakthrough in negotiations in Honduras. I want to congratulate the people of Honduras as well as President Zelaya and Mr. Micheletti for reaching an historic agreement.… I cannot think of another example of a country in Latin America that having suffered a rupture of its democratic and constitutional order overcame such a crisis through negotiation and dialogue.“
—U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Oct. 30, 2009
Clinton was right that ousted President Manuel Zelaya and interim leader Roberto Micheletti had reached an agreement, but it wasn’t a breakthrough and Honduras didn’t overcome anything. The agreement was intended to return Zelaya to office for the remainder of his term, pending the approval of the Honduran Congress. Trouble is, the Congress didn‘t approve him. The agreement appears to have been little more than a stalling tactic aimed at international critics, particularly the United States, which was bought hook, line, and sinker by diplomats anxious to resolve the crisis. One month later, the United States reluctantly recognized Honduras’s elections.
“I think if they [Israel] are to do anything, the most likely period is after our elections and before the inauguration of the next president. I don‘t think they will do anything before our election because they don‘t want to affect it. And they‘d have to make a judgment whether to go during the remainder of President Bush‘s term in office or wait for his successor.“
—John Bolton, Fox News, June 22, 2008
“It will have to make a decision soon, and it will be no surprise if Israel strikes by year‘s end. Israel‘s choice could determine whether Iran obtains nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future.“
—John Bolton, The Wall Street Journal, July 28, 2009
An Israeli airstrike on Iran always seems to be just around the corner for former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, no matter what the circumstances. Around the same time as the Fox News statement, he expanded on his opinion in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, saying that an Obama victory would “rule out” military action. Nevertheless, a year later he was still saying, “you would have to bet” that Israel would soon launch an attack, Obama or not. To put Bolton’s warning in perspective, he was advocating military action against Iran back in 2007, saying “our time is limited.”
“This is going to unleash rampant inflation around the world, rampant confusion in the currency markets. You‘re going to have currencies gyrating all over the world. Bond markets are going to start to collapse, and then we‘re going to have a real problem. The stock market understands this. They‘re unleashing an inflationary Holocaust because they don‘t know what else to do.“
—Jim Rogers, CNBC, Oct. 10, 2008
Famed investor and financial commentator Rogers made this prediction immediately before a G-7 summit in Washington at which finance ministers from around the world pledged “decisive action” to unfreeze credit markets. (Rogers thought it would be a better idea for them to “go down to the bar and have a beer and leave the rest of us alone.”) Although Obama later committed the United States to almost $800 billion more in deficit spending, Rogers’s prediction still failed to materialize. Inflation rates have remained in negative territory for most of 2009, and most predictions place it in the range of 1 to 2 percent in the year ahead. Rumors of the dollar’s demise have also been greatly exaggerated.
“If we do nothing, I can guarantee you that within a decade, a communist Chinese regime that hates democracy and sees America as its primary enemy will dominate the tiny country of Panama, and thus dominate the Panama Canal, one of the world‘s most important strategic points.“
—Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), Dec. 7, 1999
Rohrabacher made this alarming prediction during a debate on the U.S. handover of the Panama Canal. His fellow hawk, retired Adm. Thomas Moorer, even warned that China could sneak missiles into Panama and use the country as a staging ground for an attack on the United States. Well, Rohrabacher’s decade ran out this December, and all remains quiet on the Panamanian front. As for China, the United States is now its largest trading partner.