Entry from February 12, 2009

The passage of the “stimulus” bill ought to be a reminder of a curious disconnect between the Obama mythos, still being routinely celebrated in the press, and the grubby actualities of government. It reminds me, as so many things in our postmodern politics do, of that great exercise in political moralizing, Al Gore’s Oscar and Nobel-prize-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth of 2006. You may remember that at the end of the movie, after impressing upon us the imminent apocalyptic prospects for our planet on account of global warming, Al turned at last to what he thought we ought to do about it and could come up with nothing more compelling to the imagination than recycling cans and bottles and buying more energy-efficient light bulbs. There must have seemed even to those more willing than I to be impressed with the diagnosis some sense of disproportion in the proposed remedies. Can the narrative of catastrophe really be believed if the response to it is so trivial?

There is something of the same disproportion between the Obama narrative — historic election, a sweeping away of the mistakes of the past, high ideals, a new birth of hope and especially the hope for change — which is suited to the language of “catastrophe” but not to the political capital that the bringer of change and the averter of catastrophe has expended on a grab-bag of local projects for sports complexes and leisure centers, an overpass or a bit of “weatherization” here or there. And, of course, education and “the arts.” You just know that that’s money down the drain. Anyway, all this kind of stuff is way too familiar and, with the best will in the world, nothing to do with “change,” except in the sense that previous presidents might have been expected to feel at least a little ashamed to present us with such stuff under that name. Not this one.

Nor will even the legendarily silver-tongued Mr Obama be able to persuade people that unless we start building more basketball courts and dog parks the economy is bound to collapse. Even the mainstream media is beginning to wonder what is the point of the President’s talk of looming disaster and the spectre of “Depression.” Josh Gerstein in Politico noted that Mr Obama had “used his first prime-time news conference to paint an extraordinarily bleak picture of America’s future if Congress fails to move quickly to pass stimulus legislation . . . Yet for all his grim talk about the recession, Obama said he’s hoping that the economy could start to rebound as early as 2010.” Snarky liberal Dana Milbank was also skeptical in a Washington Post piece titled, “Again With the Depression? Great.” He wrote that “if the economy isn’t already in a depression, Americans themselves are likely to be if they’ve been hearing their leaders drop the D-bomb again and again.”

Back in the days of Franklin Roosevelt, to which these are now so often being compared, the watchword from our confident helmsman was an assurance that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Now we have everything to fear, apparently, but fear. Fortunately, the lesson of the campaign seems to have been that rhetorical “hope” had no necessary connection with the actual business of governing. Why should we not, then, be able to hope that the same is true of rhetorical fear? After all, there’s nothing more reassuring to the extraordinary anxieties raised by the administration in order to get the stimulus bill through than the politics-as-usual that makes up so much of it.

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