Horace Walpole [1717-1797], the master of Strawberry Hill and 4th Earl of Oxford, was a noted writer, art historian, antiquarian and member of the English Parliament. He was also a first-class wit. His best-known epigram teaches "This world is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel." For Walpole, this was far more than a mere aphorism; it provided, in his words, "a solution of why Democritus laughed and Heraclitus wept." [Note: Democritus and Heraclitus were two pre-Socratic thinkers, the former known as "The Laughing Philosopher," the latter as "The Weeping Philosopher."]
Walpole's quip has been banging around my brain the past several days as I digest and contemplate what is being written and said about the emerging Obama economic team and the even more emergent Obama economic strategy. For those who think -- and thus more likely to find comedy in this world -- the Obama economic team and strategy are laughably Clintonus revivicus -- Clinton revisited. "And he promised the American people a new beginning with new faces!" the thinkers snort. "What's so new about Volker, Summers and Geithner [who by the way is not Jewish]? Aren't they all Rubin retreads? We know what to expect! More kowtowing to Wall Street at the expense of Main Street. What a joke!"
Then, there are those who feel -- the tragedians. Their lament goes something like: "There's no way on earth Obama's going to be able to fulfill any of his campaign promises. Universal Health-care, Global Warming, Alternative Fuels -- they're all pipe dreams. Sure as God made little green apples, he's going to put us into an economic hole from which we're never going to emerge!"
Could it be that both the thinkers and the empaths have it wrong? To my way of thinking what President-Elect Obama has laid out so far is not the second coming of Bill Clinton and doesn't mean the stillbirth of his vision for America. I think a large part of the problem is that those of us who think or feel -- or indeed, both -- have become so accustomed to [and frustrated by] second-rate thinking, shallowness, callowness, cronyism and political slight-of-hand, that we have lost the ability to trust, to believe or even to hope.
Yes, many members of Barack Obama's economic team do have a connection to the Clinton White House -- and mostly through Robert Rubin. But let us ask: if Barack Obama had named people with virtually no connection to the Clinton White House, Treasury of the Fed, would the critics have been any less voluble? Was he supposed to select people whose only experience was theoretical or -- even worse -- garnered in the Bush White House? The obvious answer is "no." And, from listening to what Obama's picks have been saying the past few days, it is clear that their thinking, their understanding of economic reality, has both grown and shifted with the times.
One of the things that Americans are going to have to get used to is something which much of the rest of the world has already figured out: that Barack Obama is one hell of a lot smarter than most of us. I don't know about you, but I for one feel much more comfortable and optimistic having a president who is both brilliant and politically gifted. Yes, we have had really brainy presidents in our lifetime; Carter and Clinton both had stratospheric I.Q.s -- for all the good it did them. And, we've had presidents who were politically gifted; Johnson and Reagan come to mind. But with Barack Obama, we see a man who is both. Already, he is laying the groundwork for what looks to be a harmonious, highly productive working relationship with Congress. In selecting Rahm Emanuel as White House Chief of Staff, Obama has a key man who sees partners and allies where others have seen only enemies and adversaries. Unbelievably, it may well be that the lame duck 110th Congress will pass Obama's economic stimulus package even before he takes the oath of office January 20th.
As noted above, the "tragedians" are already predicting that due to our overwhelming fiscal crisis, the entirety of Obama's campaign promises of social and economic reform are D.O.A. Not so fast. From what the president-elect has been saying and indicating the past several days, these social and economic reforms are actually part of -- not apart from -- our economic recovery. His proposed economic stimulus package -- which may well be on his desk for signing come January 20, 2009 -- dwarfs anything ever attempted by the federal government. And while the professional wet blankets and troglodytes of talk radio have already damned the incoming administration to the fires of Hell, Wall Street and much of the world's financial markets are responding most positively. No doubt part of this is the result of a collective sigh of relief; George W. Bush and his cowboys are finally headed for the bunkhouse. Most, however, seems to spring from the very real understanding that the United States will once again, after so many years, be in the hands of professionals.
From all indications, Barack Obama has a holistic view of the economy. Health care, green energy investment, education reform and a new approach to regulating financial markets are all part of this view. One little-noted example of what the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne termed Obama's "decision to tether social and economic policy" came a couple of days ago when, in the midst of naming his economic team, the president-elect also announced Melody Barnes as the Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.
Back on March 4, 1933, Franklin Roosevelt took the oath of office and embarked on his "First hundred days." During those heady hundred days, the 73rd Congress enacted everything from the Emergency Banking Relief Act [March 9], and Civilian Conservation Corps Reforestation Relief Act [March 31] to the Federal Emergency Relief Act [May 12] and the Tennessee Valley Authority Act [May 18]. Many of the nation's leading business writers and financial lions accused both Roosevelt and Congress of being dangerous, out-of-touch Socialists; traitors who were attaching a lethal anchor to the body politic. And yet, in so many ways, Roosevelt and his New Dealers were proven both farsighted and correct. They literally saved a nation.
We can fully expect both those who perceive the world as comedy and those as tragedy to cast vitriolic aspersions upon the Obama Administration and the incoming 111th Congress. They will accuse them of conspiring to bring America to wreck and ruin; some will even persist in the canard that it was Obama himself who caused the recession and that if only America had voted for McCain-Palin, none of this would have occurred.
Be both patient and hopeful of better days to come. And while you're at it, turn a deaf ear to the naysayers of comedy and tragedy whenever they speak of economy.
For as Horace Walpole also quipped:
"By deafness one gains in one respect more than one loses; one misses more nonsense than sense."
©2008, Kurt F. Stone