Friday, March 27, 2009

Potpourri of politics

The political sphere is spinning at rapid pace.  First, AIG bonuses mean Geithner should step down, and soon after he's seen as gaining his footing and finding his voice as the architect of the financial crisis recovery.   But architecting a recovery is different than the transformational change that many are looking for after witnessing the kind of crisis the existing financial system got us into. 

And then there's President Obama.  I can't even keep track of what Obama is doing these days.  One day, he's making history and offending handicapped people on Jay Leno, and on another day he's maniacally laughing on 60 Minutes, and then he's doing virtual town hall meetings where he's trying to avoid being the President who legalized marijuana.  Then he about faced and announced a new AfPak strategy just in case y'all forgot we're losing a war out there, and Bin Laden is still alive and kickin'.  I'm sure I've skipped a bunch of things Obama did, said, and changed since last week.  Say what you will; this is a mighty energetic President.  

And all of that doesn't even touch on the hubbub Obama created by his prime-time news conference.  In a recent editorial in WaPo, Michael Gerson defends Obama's dependence on the teleprompter as just another way of being authentic.   I think Gerson protects too much.  Obama' reliance on the teleprompter (or LCD monitor, in the case of the news conference) works against his brand as a genuine leader.   Yes, speeches can be genuine, and just because it's written doesn't mean it's not from the heart.  But, too often, we look to our leaders to master stagecraft and symbols as a substitute for being allowed to be human -- one of us who happens to have a fantastic responsibility.   Why must we pretend, nay, insist that our President be otherworldly in his/her perfection?  In his news conference, Obama clearly indicated that he can speak off the cuff quite effectively.  But if we hadn't seen that side of him, there would have been many who would have implicitly presumed he is an empty suit. 

And no potpourri of politics would be complete without reviewing the row between the recently-awakened deficit hawk Republicans and Obama's deficit spending budget plan.  It's easy to argue that deficit spending is bad, and that more government is the problem, not the solution.   It's harder, however, to argue the point that America should not seriously consider re-investing in itself far beyond business as usual.   This, by definition, requires deficit spending beyond the current deficit.   The point?  Obama is setting the re-investment agenda based on what he ran on, and what he believes is the right thing to do for America.  Republicans are not helping America by playing the "no new taxes; shrink government" card.  This is not engaging in debate, it's a fingers-in-ears-I-can't-hear-you move.  If Republicans want to have influence in the debate, then they should debate on the merits of investment vs. non-investment in strategic economic sectors such as health care, energy and education.    Until they engage in the re-investment debate in a substantive way, they don't really deserve my or your attention. 

Saturday, March 14, 2009

It's storytelling time

In Larry Summers' recent speech on the economy, he actually started to paint a picture of what exactly we're experiencing (through useful metaphors), and more importantly, he explained how and why Obama's economic plan was actually going to work.   He was clearly not going to commit to the when's, but I have to say it was a bit of a relief to hear how all of these policies were going to address the issues that we're facing as a nation.

As good as the speech was, it was only the very tip of the iceberg in the telling of "the story" -- the story about what we're currently experiencing, and about how the different components of Obama's plan will deliver us sustainable growth.  

While the term sustainable is typically reserved for green strategies, it's a very appropriate term for what Obama's plan is attempting to accomplish.  Yet, bizarrely, Obama feels it appropriate to frame his plan as one that will enable a "post-bubble economy."  Really?   Is that really preferable to a "sustainable economy"?   In any case, Obama is bucking conventional wisdom that the stock market's reaction is an indicator of his plans' viability.  Rather, Obama is convinced that the stock market will reject his plans in the short-term, but will turn around when it sinks in how this deep investment plan will benefit the economy in a deeper way than we're used to seeing in modern politics. 

Despite the shocking and scary amounts of money being spent and proposed to move America forward, there is some good thinking across the board within the Obama economic team.  However, it took way too much of my time and effort to piece it together and to get somewhat comfortable with it.  Obama, the great communicator, needs to tell Americans a story that we can easily wrap our heads around; a story that explains the investment of our tax dollars as a path to future long-term prosperity that will pay dividends far beyond the investment.  

It's already difficult to justify historic levels of continued government spending in the wake of an administration that allowed deficits to rise uncontrollably.   Americans have every right to feel queasy about a proposed $3.6 trillion budget on the heels of a $700 billion TARP fund and a $780 billion stimulus package.   But if the story is told properly, not only will Americans understand that the $3.6 trillion includes the tremendous costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that the prior President handed over to Obama, but also includes investments in many key services that Americans want and demand. 

Obama will eventually lose the information war if he does not effectively re-frame his budget as a story.  He cannot require people to listen to the less-than-electric speeches of Larry Summers to fully understand the situation and the proposed solutions.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Now or Later?

It's been too quiet at Between the Columns, I know. Consider it processing time. There are a lot of political dynamics swirling around of late, and I would rather hang-tight and remain tight-lipped than simply echo things being said everywhere else. But I've simmered enough. It's time to say something. In fact, a few things.
  • A dramatic recession is increasingly applying pressure on the country, which is being used as a political sword by both Democrats and Republicans. This is normal and expected.
  • Obama is rapidly and boldly executing on his campaign promises, but doing so without an overarching narrative. Not surprising, as Obama did the same thing during his campaign.
  • Republicans continue to cling to free-market fantasies as the free-market they enabled collapses around them. Yet people expect conservatives to change their beliefs based on new realities? Conservative means resistant to change. Obama's orientation to transformational change represents most everything that will drive a conservative up a tree. Nobody should be expecting bi-partisanship. Doesn't mean Obama doesn't still need to try.
  • Republicans suddenly got religion on deficit spending. The suspicious timing of their deep, deep concern rings hollow and partisan. They might actually have a point -- but please, don't expect us to take you seriously when you effortlessly mix partisanship with patriotism.
  • Democrats surrounding Obama are looking for sweet, sweet revenge now that they run the joint. Doing so is undermining Obama's brand. Obama doesn't seem to care much, which is likely the result of knee-capping Chicago-style politics entering Washington D.C.
  • Sec. of Treasury Timothy Geithner might be the smartest, most knowledgeable wonk in the room, but I sniff Emanuel's influence on this pick. Geithner for deputy Sec. of Treasury.
  • Emanuel v. Limbaugh is the pillow fight that makes Beltway Boys snicker, and what turns off Betsy McMansion. Be careful, hacks. Hackery sells better when people have money to buy stuff.
But I think the Big News is the conflict of cultures that has been cast upon us.

The first culture is the pre-existing one -- the culture that enables Wall Street to believe it reflects the value of America's assets on a daily basis, and a culture that has convinced most Americans that the stock market is the primary tool to ensure future prosperity. It's a Culture of Now that is uniquely American; a culture that you can either be proud of because it rewards risk and action, or sneer at because of how short-sighted and nonstrategic it is.

The second culture is Obama's systems-thinking approach to management and strategy: In this Culture of Later, Obama thinks more like an executive of a large company, where it's all about the 5-year strategic plan. Typically, an executive will have a vision for the future, set short- and long-term goals, and invest in the right infrastructure and assets required to multiply the money invested into future profits and value. And, executives of publicly-traded companies (at least the respected ones) rarely make large changes to their strategic plan based on the daily or monthly value of their stock. This Culture of Later can really freak out people who are addicted to the Culture of Now. To the now'ers, it can appear that later'ers like Obama are "above it all" and don''t really care about you or the fact that you're losing a piece of your life savings every day. In addition, now-loving institutions like the stock market of course react negatively to this new culture in Washington. The markets like predictability, and a new culture of governing is really not very comforting for those who prefer to know exactly how tomorrow will unfold.

Obama likely knows all of this, and is patiently waiting for people and systems to get comfortable with his culture of later approach to society. The man's got a vision for this country, and since he won his election based primarily on the notion of change, it looks like he's going to invest our money to support his vision of what change means. He's the new CEO of America, Inc., and we, the people, are the shareholders who put him in office. In about four years, the shareholders will hold another meeting to decide if we're going to keep him around to continue to advance his vision, or not.

The question everyone loves to ask is: "Should Obama be engaging in a series of massive social investments during such a huge economic crisis?" The answer is more or less academic, because it appears to be precisely what Obama has decided to do.