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.