The Coming Fall

Jewett Scholar
Michael Novak
My wife and I escaped from Washington out to the shore (at the Cape just where the Atlantic Ocean meets Delaware Bay), partly because we couldn't face the traffic and large-scale "lock down" in which Washington, invaded by hundreds of thousands upon thousands, now finds itself. We were not permitted to drive downtown. Subways are jammed. My office is closed. Taxicabs are all occupied.

The new president fully expects some of his words to be one day chiseled in marble.

But worst of all as we left town was the Leader-focused enthusiasm of the crowds, and the pre-inaugural grandiosity of the new president-elect.

At the pre-inauguration concert on the National Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial, dark red banners on the temporary stands of the amphitheater built for the occasion, with adulatory crowds packed into them, brought back ugly newsreel images from my childhood. The feeling expressed by many who were there and others who watched on television reveals a strain of messianism that ill becomes a democratic republic. It fits better with political systems based upon the cult of personality.

Every day, President-elect Obama was finding a new way to associate himself with Abraham Lincoln, the great hero of the American imagination, slain by an assassin's bullet in Ford's Theater in April of 1865.

Yet Lincoln was the first Republican president, not a Democrat. and he led the nation into what many thought was an unnecessary and unpopular war, the bloodiest war in the entire history of the United States, the Civil War of 1861-65, the War "to save the Union," which also emancipated the slaves. Lincoln was the bravest, most long-suffering, and often in those days most popularly despised among all our presidents.

Some 24 hours before President Obama gave his inaugural address someone on his staff said in the hearing of journalists that the new president fully expects some of his words to be one day chiseled in marble.

It may happen. But that pretension captured the pre-inaugual atmosphere. It was even believable, for the new president has proven to be a very eloquent speaker. Thus, no new president has ever come to Washington with higher standing in the popular polls, and higher expectations of a swift upturn in the nation's well-being.

In January of the year 1992, I was called upon to give a talk at the Renaissance Weekend at which President-elect Bill Clinton and his "co-president" Hillary were present (two for the price of one, the campaigner had earlier quipped). I said on that occasion what I now repeat on this: There was too much enthusiasm in the air, and too much false association with the Camelot of John F. Kennedy so early in 1960. Every president in my adult lifetime, I said, has come in with high hopes and been dashed into humiliation before his term of office had concluded. Kennedy. Johnson. Nixon. Ford. Carter. Reagan (dimmed by Iran-Contra). Bush 41. Clinton. Bush 43. The job of president is to cope with his own coming tragedy. No man can fulfill all the hopes that go with the office. His own strengths often undo him.

President Obama's great strengths are his capacity for myth-building and seduction, by sowing unreasonable hopes. His fall may be especially sad . . . even though he is likely to experience, before that, a run of good luck in the economy.

The run of good luck will show up when the economy slowly begins to turn upwards in June or July of this year, as the number of mortgage foreclosures of owner-occupied homes steadily falls. Mortgage companies are already resuming their traditional controls over credit, as in the more solid past, and they are now over-busy trying to handle a great wave of home-refinancing. Citizens are overwhelming national mortgage companies such as Wells Fargo (Des Moines) and USAA (the financial services company for the military, based in San Antonio) with applications for re-financing, as home owners rush to take advantage of the unusually low interest rates.

A number of banks and mortgage companies have announced that they are willing to write down hefty losses on loans they earlier and foolishly made. They judge it better to save what they can from their own bad decisions of the recent past. If this happens, many families will keep their homes, while paying interest on lower principal. And the banks will keep receiving steady income. A certain realism seems to be slowly overtaking the recent panic.

In addition, growth in productivity is still visible. Further, even though in the last six months the economy lost more than a million jobs, the number of Americans employed as 2009 begins is still higher than on January 20, 2000--by about 3 million on the Labor Department's payroll survey, and by about 11 million on their household survey.

Moreover, it has been a mistake for Obama supporters to vent their anger at outgoing President Bush, by exaggerating the plight of our admittedly wounded economy. It is self-defeating to talk down the economy, while talking up the miracles about to be worked by President Obama. The inaugural address did not quite go that far, but it may have turned the tone of discussion in that direction.

To point now to existing strengths in the economy would have two advantages: it would help the new president change the national atmosphere, and it would be honest. It is time to shift from the negativism of campaigning to the realism of making things better, by building on existing strengths.

Another bit of good luck for the president will be a dramatic change in the attitude of the press. Beginning on Day One, the press will start focusing on optimism and magnifying every faintest sign of progress, in order to help President Obama. They will blow out the sails of his myth-making and miracle-working. All to the good! It beats unrelenting negativism.

American presidents are, inevitably, something like Christ figures. They must all suffer and, eventually, fall. Human nature, as the Poet says, cannot bear too much success.

We may hope that the new president, who has an acute mind, recognizes what fate has in store for him--and puts if off as long as he can by adjusting the myths under which he campaigned, to the realities of the way the world works. There are signs he has already begun that (in protecting the transition in Iraq, in defending the homeland against terrorist attacks, in seeking the economic benefits of low tax rates, just to mention a few just now in evidence). The new sober tone of the inaugural may be a further indication.

But there are other signs he and his team have a lot to learn, in order to come down to the world as it is. He has already seriously neglected some of the traditional courtesies and deferences that a president owes to individual Senators, his team has failed properly and solidly to vet several of his cabinet choices. His mantra of "change" is indiscriminate and myth-building. There are many solid rocks in American life that, his inaugural address affirmed, he would not want to change.

Also, we Americans inherit a happy tradition, which it is good to see the new administration celebrating. Abraham Lincoln once taught us that being born in a log cabin in the hard-scrabble hills of Kentucky was no bar to being elected president of the United States. Power has been peacefully handed off from one administration to another 44 times in American history (including the first to take up this office, George Washington, who was handed off power peacefully by a new Constitution). It has usually been done with a personal courtesy and a popular enthusiasm about which the Constitution is silent--unless one counts the Constitution written down in American hearts and mores. Leges sine moribus vanae. (Laws cut off from mores are empty.)

These lessons of principle and of tradition--and many other practical ones learned by presidents down the years (about appeasement, about the effects of government spending on inflation, etc.)--Obama is now in a position to learn, if he chooses to do so. Traditions live only by changing. But where to prune and where to let live is the highest of human arts, Aristotle taught.

So, as the earliest Americans greeted Washington, for Obama, too: "Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!" Plus also a little sadness for what must come.

Michael Novak is the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at AEI.

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