The Meaning of Obama, Part I, with a Lesson from Trollope and an admonitory afterword from Santayana

"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."

-- Wilkins Micawber, David Copperfield

Smart people tell me that a great country cannot regulate its finances the way a family should. Even smarter people, however, nod with satisfaction when they encounter Mr. Micawber's little disquisition on the economic concomitants of psychological felicity. "I never will desert Mr. Micawber," they say, echoing Dickens.

It was perfectly obvious before he took office that Barack Obama did not subscribe to this aspect of the Gospel of Micawber. But not all of Obama's admirers, I'd wager, understood how firmly he embraced another tenet of the Micawber philosophy: to wit, "something will turn up" -- the deus ex machina approach to economic resolution, brought down to earth and entrusted with our secular salvation.

When it comes to money, Obama seems curiously divided in his mind. On the one hand, he is not averse to spending gobs of it -- millions, billions, trillions. Who's counting? There's always more, he seems to think, where that came from. It's the spigot theory of economics: just turn the handle of government authority, and presto! the tax receipts, the fees, the garnishments, the sundry redistributed adjustments flow in like rain water after a storm.

Money for Obama is the great tool -- the great weapon, even -- of social reconstitution. There are piles and piles of it about, and all he needs to do to fulfill his campaign promise to "fundamentally transform the United States of America" is move some rather hefty piles from your squares on the gameboard over to the squares marked "nationalized health care," "educational reform," "welfare" -- I mean "tax cuts for 95 percent of Americans," and the like.

On the other hand, Obama is suspicious of money. He seems to believe it carries a moral taint, especially when any significant amount of it finds its way into the hands of ordinary citizens. I don't mean to suggest that he has any objection to money personally. Clearly, he thinks it is OK that his wife pads off for a photo op at a local soup kitchen in sneakers that cost$540. But in the larger sense -- i.e., when he thinks about society as a whole -- he deprecates wealth and the acquisitive instincts that make its accumulation possible.