The Yin and Yang of Economic Recovery
It was like a week-long stimulus package for political junkies.
First, President Obama’s appearance on NBC’s Tonight Show made him the first sitting president to appear on a late night talk show. Not really a historic event of epic proportions but Jay’s ratings spiked and that accounts for something.
Then the president’s 60 Minutes interview, his second in two months, provided him with another platform to take his message directly to the American people. This kind of audience isn’t something to be taken lightly but he still wasn’t done.
By the time of his Tuesday night primetime news conference, also his second since taking office, even strong supporters were wondering if Obama was risking overexposure.
Yet today, Obama is on the internet responding to questions from the public.
Drawing on FDR’s successful fireside chat strategy but updating it for the 21st century, Obama seems to combine the legendary communications skills of Ronald Reagan with the policy acumen of Bill Clinton.
Clinton was good at appearing at ease and in control of the facts but Obama’s performance is in a class all by itself. He makes mistakes, for sure, but even an East German judge would award him at least a 9.7 given the degree of difficulty.
Few people actually understand the intricacies of the financial system, let alone know how to fix it. But we expect our leaders to. We judge them on the critical measures of competence, confidence and commitment, and Obama has earned high grades on all three.
During the campaign, Obama was often labeled as a rock star and John McCain tried to make this into a negative. But we want to be infatuated by our leaders as long as they also demonstrate the energy and ability to attend to our needs.
Obama’s greatest strength has been his ability to walk this fine line; inspiring while occasionally chastising, showing intelligence without appearing wonkish, and working hard enough to appear focused without appearing to strain under the pressure.
I know it’s only been two months but we live in a society with little patience. Some people on the right and the left made up their mind about Obama a long time ago and probably won’t change under almost any eventuality. But the president’s popularity and, to a great extent, his success will depend on the response of the critical mass in the middle.
It is way too early to assess the success or failure of the Obama presidency. But on the critical metric of public confidence you have to give the guy credit. He seems in charge, he seems to have a plan and he seems to be up to the challenge.
The naysayers are apoplectic about how much debt the federal government is amassing. Well, duh! But Obama has not been blind to this problem and has returned time and again to the need for long-term deficit reduction. But the closest thing to consensus among economists that any of us have ever seen is that unprecedented spending by the federal government is necessary to break the nation out of this recession.
The challenge that remains unanswered is whether the spending is enough to do the trick and if there is adequate oversight to ensure that it is spent well.
It may have been politically expedient to pass the stimulus money on to the states and cities and let them decide how to spend it appropriately but it will be important to keep the predictable waste, fraud and abuse to a minimum.
I was not exactly put at ease when Vice President Biden told local officials that he may not be able to stop them from spending the stimulus money improperly but that he would show up in their backyards to embarass them.
The stimulus package does have restrictions and conditions but we all know there is little limitation in the creativity of politicians and bureaucrats to find ways to spend money on pet projects.
Here in the Milwaukee area, much of the transportation spending is being funneled through that strange entity fondly referred to as SEWRPC. Nobody has followed the bizarre, star chamber-like dealings of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission closer than blogger Jim Rowen.
Since the seven counties all have equal representation on this powerful public board, few should be surprised that the needs of the region’s most populous city, Milwaukee, are often underserved. Take a look at some of Rowen’s SEWRPC posts and see for yourself if you are comfortable with this body making key decisions about millions of dollars in public funds.
So while there is reason for hope on many fronts, it’s way too early to declare success. As the sage of the modern conservative movement once said, “Trust but Verify.’
Locally, the Milwaukee Common Council took an important step by passing the MORE jobs ordinance which requires developers who receive $1 million or more in public assistance to hire a certain number of qualified Milwaukee residents who need the work and pay them the same wage others in their job category earn.
In Governor Doyle’s proposed budget, he endorses applying this prevailing wage requirement throughout the state on nearly every project receiving public support.
The winds of change are blowing but the devil is in the details.
So pay attention people. Ask questions. Show up at meetings. Surf the web. This stuff matters.