We need an FDR, not a Carter, and we’re getting neither

We need an FDR, not a Carter, and we’re getting neither

When I was a kid, there was an advertising campaign for an insurance company that typically involved someone walking along, minding their own business when, unbeknownst to them, something awful was about to happen. A piano, for example, was about to be dropped out a window onto them. The clueless protagonist would then turn to his friend who noticed the impending calamity and respond to an implied question, "My insurance company? New England Life, of course. Why?"

I look at the current economic situation and feel a kind of déjà vu that takes me back to those ads. The president of the United States is walking down a street, surrounded by his inner circle, discussing whether or not to offer a minor jobs bump or an insignificant deficit patch while overhead that piano is bearing down on its mark.

Frankly, were the president actively debating big fixes for America’s job crisis, its growth crisis, or its deficit crisis, he still might be blindsided by the next big disaster as it is likely to be none of those things.

Over in Europe they are cooking up a global financial crisis that is likely to hit harder in the near term than any of the longer term structural issues being debated in Washington. It might be not months but weeks or days away. Today’s Constitutional Court decision in Germany requiring that future bailouts get parliamentary approval is but the latest worrisome sign. Neither the major structural changes required to get the EU’s fiscal house in order nor the major safety net the international community should be providing seem imminent or even likely. The consequence is the growing possibility of a market meltdown that takes down a number of big European financial institutions, the American investors heavily tied up in them, financial houses around the world with hidden counterparty exposure and world stock markets.

The equivalent of the $300 billion mini-lift the president is going to timidly offer up for the U.S. economy will be wiped out of U.S. markets within minutes of the next financial wobble in Europe. But, still the administration does not play a leadership role in forestalling the crisis, demanding and pushing for fast approval for critical IMF recapitalization, calling for a G20 meeting to get ahead of the problem. In fact, the United States has, despite deep concerns of senior officials about European mismanagement of the problem and downplaying of the real issues, not been the kind of factor in addressing the crisis as it once might have been. And given the need for the United States, China, and Japan, among others, to be on board with many of the multilateral emergency scenarios that may emerge, saying we have other fish to fry is not a sufficiently good excuse. Neither is saying we are working it behind the scenes because, well, it’s just not working behind the scenes.

That said, the "other fish to fry" argument would work better if in fact, the administration were effectively consumed by its efforts to bail out the U.S. economy. But it is not. I have been flabbergasted over the past few days to have conversations with multiple senior administration officials — top folks and loyal supporters of the president in key policymaking jobs — who have confided that they have not been consulted by the White House in its preparations for President Obama’s speech tomorrow night. That’s a pity, because in each of my conversations with these people, they floated big, doable ideas that trump the parade of halfway measures that we are now being led to believe will comprise the bulk of the president’s "plan." Ideas about a really big commitment to infrastructure funded by really sensible approaches to gas taxes, tolls, etc. Ideas about clearing away regulatory obstacles so energy transformation happens much quicker creating hundreds of thousands or millions more jobs now rather than in five or seven years. Ideas about how to manage the Eurozone crisis.

But this White House historically does not turn to its cabinet or sub-cabinet effectively when it comes to Presidential speeches or initiatives. It’s all about the president and his political team. (Hence, the spectacle of them rolling out the president’s chief political advisor David Plouffe during the height of the August economic tumult. As if he would soothe the markets. As if he were the best economic spokesperson they could muster. They seem to think that the most important qualification a person can have is proximity to the president rather than any particular substantive knowledge.)

The result is an administration that is not so much a team of rivals as it is a team of benchwarmers, smart, capable, experienced, creative people at the cabinet and sub-cabinet level who are just not consulted. What’s more, for all the political "prowess" of the inner circle, they haven’t even thought to get their surrogates lined up to hit the road with a message reinforcing the president’s. No talking points circulated as of yesterday night. No plans discussed. Nada. A waste of an opportunity.

Big problems, small ideas, wasted talent. As Dean Wormer would have said, "it’s no way to go through life, son." As one very wise man, intimately familiar with not just the ways of this administration but with Washington history accurately observed to me, Franklin Roosevelt offered a better formula: "bold, persistent, experimentation." He acknowledged he didn’t have all the answers. But he was willing to take risks and never stop trying. It bought him time and support. It also ended up saving the country.

At breakfast today with another very wise Washington insider, a former cabinet official in the Clinton administration, our conversation took an unexpected turn. We both recalled how a year ago, one of the worst things you could say about Obama was that he was another Jimmy Carter. And we both agreed that today we were starting to wish he were even that good.

It’s not too late for this president to tap his full potential by tapping the full potential of his team — but it will be very, very soon.