Belmont Club

The Rap on God

As U.S. initial jobless claims rise unexpectedly, Hurricane Irene is headed for New York City. Meanwhile business is so bad at Martha’s Vineyard that people are having “textured” feelings about President Obama.

This week, with the jobless rate stuck above 9 percent and the president’s nationwide approval rating at its lowest level, the Vineyard’s broad allegiance shows cracks, leaving some islanders with a more textured, even tormented feeling about the president.

“I just have to say I feel really uncomfortable, because I love loving him,’’ said Leslie Pearlson, a real estate broker on the island …

At the core of islanders’ misgivings is the shaky local economy. Although the Vineyard is sometimes depicted as a playground for the rich and famous, the numbers tell another side of the story.

Empty storefronts dot main streets in Vineyard Haven, Edgartown, and elsewhere. According to the island’s Chamber of Commerce, at least one member of nearly every Vineyard household is dependent on summer business, which softened during the recession and still has not recovered.

If the playground for the rich and famous is feeling a little like Tobacco Road, it has plenty of company. For some reason nothing seems to work. The Washington Monument is cracked, and it seems portentous. A survey done by Pew reports 79% of the population believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. A Gallup poll taken over the same period concludes 88% of the population are dissatisfied with the state of affairs. Reuters has 73% of those polled believing the same things.

Like the Joker said, “why so serious?” Richard Posner believes the underlying reason is that America is in a Depression, stuck in a place where the only way forward is down. People aren’t recovering. They’re doomed and most of them know it, hence the polls.

But not everyone believes this. The administration argues it is steering things in the right direction, and all that is wanting is patience, faith, a few more taxes, and four more years starting in 2012. Jimmy Carter had the same idea in 1975. He had the notion that it was all somebody else’s fault but there was nothing wrong that a little shared sacrifice couldn’t fix. He gave the famous “malaise speech,” where he advised people to drive more slowly, as he had previously advised others to wear a sweater if they couldn’t pay for heating. The speech drove home a completely unintended message: that Jimmy Carter was the problem and he was so incompetent that he couldn’t see it.

His pollster, Pat Caddell, told him that the American people simply faced a crisis of confidence because of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.; the Vietnam War; and Watergate. On July 15, 1979, Carter gave a nationally-televised address in which he identified what he believed to be a “crisis of confidence” among the American people. This came to be known as his “malaise” speech, although the word never appeared in it.

I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy. . . . I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might.  . . .

I’m asking you for your good and for your nation’s security to take no unnecessary trips, to use carpools or public transportation whenever you can, to park your car one extra day per week, to obey the speed limit, and to set your thermostats to save fuel… I have seen the strength of America in the inexhaustible resources of our people. In the days to come, let us renew that strength in the struggle for an energy-secure nation.

To Carter the way forward was slower cars and more shared hardship the way Obama’s bright future consists of a humbled, downsized America powered by windmills and commuting on bicycles.  Neither understands that is precisely the problem, but not in the way they think.  Mortimer Zuckerman at the Wall Street Journal argues that the president’s excessively “textured” view of the world has blinded him to his own role in causing the current difficulties. Whatever the reasons for the country’s woes, President Obama can’t see himself as one of them. But Zuckerman argues that on the contrary the president is at the center of the problem, though he can’t see it.

The rising impatience with the leadership of President Obama was epitomized on Aug. 8 in the middle of one of the now-habitual Wall Street roller coasters. His speech on the economy was 53 minutes late. What showed on TV screens was an empty White House podium, an image suggestive of the absence of leadership. When the president did speak, the best he could come up with was “We’ve always been and always will be a triple-A country.” The market’s response was a Bronx cheer, a drop of another 300 points. … It is no surprise that many have begun to doubt the president’s leadership qualities. J.P. Morgan calls it the “competency crisis.”

But that particular chicken of “competency crisis” will never come home to roost as long as Black Swans can be invoked. And a great big one is bearing down in the shape of Hurricane Irene. As James Pethokoukis writes, the possible impact of Irene on the Eastern seaboard may be sufficient to tip the U.S. into a recession. “Back in 2005, the economy was growing at a 3-4 percent clip. Today, it’s less than 2 percent. Maybe even less than 1 percent. It seems pretty clear a devastating hit on the Big Apple might well send the economy back into recession. And given the current fragility of consumer and business confidence, how likely is it that the economy would quickly bounce back into growth in a quarter or two?”

In the aftermath of Irene, expect bulletins suggesting that the economy has “unexpectedly” taken a turn for the worse. But even if Irene were to inflict a setback that would allow the economy’s woes to be blamed on an Act of God, it should not entirely prevent President Obama from taking the opportunity to learn from his own failures, assuming that he could acknowledge any to exist. As Nick Schultz points out in National Review, Steve Jobs’ greatest strength was an ability to acknowledge and learn from his own mistakes. That strength is a weakness in Washington, where an army of journalists is constantly on the lookout for the smallest mea culpa and the slightest sign of fallibility.

There’s a moral here for a Washington culture that fears failure too much. In today’s Washington, large banks aren’t permitted to fail; nor are large auto firms. Next up will be too-big-to-fail hospital systems. Steve Jobs is a reminder that failure is a good and necessary thing. And that sometimes the greatest glories are born of catastrophe.

Nearly all the great captains of secular history have learned from their mistakes. But if the doctrine of Infallibility originated in Rome, nowhere is it more ardently practiced than in Washington D.C.  As Napoleon once cynically observed, “in politics stupidity is not a handicap.” Only humility is. President Obama is too trapped in his own “arc of history” and too irretrievably hostage to his own self-proclaimed role as a transcendent political figure to pull off a Steve Jobs.

Shortly before his election Obama declared, “we are five days from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” From such heights it is hard to turn around and say, “I screwed up.” He is doomed by his own hubris to tragedy, for which he will suffer no financial or personal ill-effect. It is unfortunate the same can’t be said for those whose futures he will take down with him.

The president famously ascribed his woes to a “run of bad luck.” Someone should have reminded him that Nemesis, the bringer of tragedy, “originally meant the distributor of fortune, neither good nor bad, simply in due proportion to each according to what was deserved.” In that view, you make your own luck, and there is a large dose of irony in watching the Left, which believes in no deity but itself, eager to hang the rap on God.

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