Washington Matters


Is Obama Blowing It?


For Barack Obama, March is turning out to be a cruel month. While his personal popularity remains high, public support for his policies is mixed, and commentators on all sides are beginning to lambaste his every move. The shrillest critics at CNBC and talk radio blame him for the stock market's poor performance. Bloomberg News ran a story with "Obama's Bear Market" in the headline. The Wall Street Journal editorial page has taken to referring to the Obama economy. Republicans cited the latest job numbers as proof that the stimulus is misdirected, while New York Times columnist Paul Krugman says they prove Obama's stimulus was too little and too timid. And even the Washington Post editorial page, an Obama supporter, says he needs to fix the economy before worrying about health care, energy and education.

On foreign policy, it's not much better. Liberals say his Iraq withdrawal plan doesn't go far enough, while conservatives criticize him for not being tougher with Iran and North Korea and for not being kinder to the Brits. New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristoff even compared him to Neville Chamberlain for not preventing more killings in Darfur, though it wasn't quite clear what Kristoff thought Obama can do. 

How much of this is Obama's fault? None, you could argue. It's silly to blame the stock market's fall on him when the SP 500 fell almost 40% in 2008. Ditto for concluding the stimulus isn't enough when it hasn't really taken effect yet. And the job numbers were for February -- the stimulus wasn't even signed until Feb. 17.

But Obama, who seems to be taking all the criticism it in stride, has to do more than call for patience and keep reminding us that he inherited this unholy mess from President Bush. That's true, but it's not enough, and Americans will soon tire of hearing it if they haven't already. 

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Instead Obama has to buck us up by talking more specifically about his present plans and the future. He's taking too long to define and push through an overhaul of the banking system. He's got to get out in front and assure Americans -- and the world -- that he not only has a real plan but that it will actually get crediti flowing again. That means explaining how it will work and why it has his confidence.

The economy has everyone spooked and Obama is the only one who can calm us down. And if he doesn't do it soon, it may be too late. Habits formed now -- including cutbacks in consumer spending by those who can still afford to spend and mistrust in the stock market -- can be long-lasting if not arrested quickly. A good friend of mine who normally takes events in stride and has great confidence in Obama tells me she's pulling out of stocks even if that's dumb because she can't sleep at night  She's not sure when -- or if -- she'll ever feel safe in the stock market. Four promising professionals in their 20s I know are suddenly out of work, one of whom moved to New York with a job commitment that evaporated while she was on I-95. Will they ever have confidence in the economy? My parents, who grew up in the Great Depression, always invested in CDs and never bought anything on credit except their house -- and that was with a 25% down payment. Will those coming of financial age today feel similar constraints?

It's up to Obama to make sure they don't. And so far, he's not doing enough to give us hope and confidence.

 



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