Today is an age of therapy — support groups, SRI medications, Oprah, a large and very strong cocktail at five o’clock sharp — and our president, for good or ill, is now our therapist-in-chief. Since at least as far back as FDR’s fireside chats, we’ve expected the president to calmly explain things to us, to whip inflation, to feel our pain, to pat us on the backs and remind us that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.
There are tons of perfectly good reasons to be uncomfortable with a national chief executive of supposedly limited and defined powers doing all these things. But as we’ve seen the last 50-some-odd days, there’s one incontestable reason to ask our commander-in-chief to also be our sob sister: President Obama is lousy at it, and it’s costing us trillions. That’s trillions, with a capital T.
Which rhymes with P, which stands for “paucity of proper personnel picks.”
For the third time in a week, a candidate for a major Department of the Treasury office has withdrawn from consideration. Thursday afternoon, H. Rodgin Cohen took his name back out of the hat because, as ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos reports, “an issue arose in the final stages of the vetting process.” And what issue might that have been? Tax evasion? Nannygate XVII? Murdering hobos for sport? We don’t know, because no one is saying. What we do know is, Cohen was supposed to serve as Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s right-hand (left-hand?) man, but will now be staying in the private sector.
(This is ironic, given that it was another Democratic president, Harry Truman, who once complained that he was going to find himself a one-armed economist who wouldn’t be able to say to him, “on the other hand…”)
It was late last week that Annette Nazareth withdrew from consideration for the same post, after “several interviews and vetting of her financial history,” according to Fox News. It would be unfair to note that when Nazareth served as the SEC’s director of the Division of Market Regulation, she tried and failed to catch Bernie Madoff at his pyramid games — because I can’t find any evidence that she ever actually tried.
Scant hours after Nazareth removed her thorny crown, Caroline Atkinson also withdrew her nomination to the almost-as-vital position of undersecretary for international affairs. The reason given was — surprise! — tax problems. It was at this point that the Telegraph‘s Washington reporter, Toby Harnden, was forced to conclude that there were “signs of chaotic decision making and inadequate vetting” in the Obama administration.
So here we are, at some indeterminate time in a period of international financial crisis, and our Treasury doesn’t have an undersecretary for international affairs. It doesn’t even have a nominee for the post. In fact, other than Geithner, all 17 major positions at Treasury remain unfilled. Even Time magazine joked that “you could go bowling in the halls of Treasury without risk of hitting a human being. Even if you used an oversized beach ball.”
OK, I completely made that up. But Time‘s Massimo Calabresi did have this to say about the whole mess:
Geithner — who at 47 still looks like the Doogie Howser of economists — has had difficulty filling out his roster of lieutenants; he wasn’t helped when Paul Volcker, the old lion who got the U.S. out of its last deep recession, described Treasury’s staffing woes as “shameful.”
That, I should add, was written three days before Cohen pulled out. Give the situation a few more days to devolve, and my bowling joke will look pretty tame.
And that’s the problem, isn’t it? Our entire banking sector is paralyzed with fear, and rightly so. According to a recent Reuters story, Blackstone Group CEO Stephen Schwarzman estimates that “Between 40 and 45 percent of the world’s wealth has been destroyed in little less than a year and a half.” Think about that. There was no 9/11 in New York, no nuclear bomb going off in London or Beijing, no fleets of bombers destroying factories — there has not been any physical destruction of capital whatsoever. Yet in the last 18 months, nearly half the wealth in the world has vanished into thin air. Most of the world’s riches now reside on the hard drives and financial statements of banks and other institutions, and those institutions are hurting badly.
Right now — in fact, starting a bare minimum of 53 days ago — this nation needs a therapist-in-chief. We need someone with the stature to calm the fears of the global financial industry. We need someone with the moral (not to leave out “legal”) authority to set new ground rules, and quickly, so that the panic ends and lending can begin again. And we need a president with the staff to help him get these things done.
Instead? Instead we have a president who’s taking the Spaghetti Approach to staffing his Treasury Department — throwing stuff up against the wall and seeing what sticks. And instead of using his moral authority to soothe the markets, Obama has thrown it away, in the opinion of Dick Morris, as “his every remark and the constant preoccupation of his Cabinet is to heighten the sense of crisis and to escalate the predictions of doom.”
Imagine for a moment you suffer from clinical depression. You go to see your shrink, and instead of giving you Prozac and his home phone number, he hands you a straight razor and a terse, “don’t call the office, there won’t be anyone there.” That’s what Dr. Obama has done for the nation.
So instead, listen to Dr. Steve who says, “Take a strong martini and, whatever you do, don’t sneak any peeks at your 401(k) statement.”
Dr. Steve is not an actual doctor, does not play one on TV, has little moral authority and even less legal authority. But he’s probably done more good for the financial sector with this silly little column than President Obama has done in the last eight weeks of failed nominations and scary speeches. Closed course, professional driver, batteries not included, parental discretion is advised.