President-Elect Obama’s inauguration is eagerly anticipated not only because he will be America’s first black president, or because he will replace the woefully unpopular George W Bush, but because he is widely seen as A Man With A Plan. While sober commentators ackowledge that comparisons with Roosevelt and the New Deal are overblown, there is nonetheless a palpable sense of expectation that this is the man to Do Something about the economic crisis, even if nobody is very sure what that is. Call it ‘the economics of hope’.
Hoping for the best
Certainly, President Obama is likely to act decisively sooner than most new presidents, signing off on a new economic stimulus package within hours of taking office. But it is widely acknowledged that this alone will not be enough. So what is Obama’s wider agenda? Part of his electoral appeal was that he doesn’t seem to have one, beyond a general promise of decency and good sense. As The Economist gleefully notes, Obama’s economic team is stacked with, er, economists. Bringing in ‘the experts’ is presented as preferable to being governed by ‘ideology’, but this is to put a lot of faith in the ‘dismal science’. And if the current problem is in fact global and historic, rather than merely technical, such faith is downright irresponsible.
Rather than the economics of hope, what is needed is political imagination. Sadly, Obama’s other appointments reveal little of that. From the retention of President Bush’s uncontroversial defense secretary Robert Gates, to the appointment of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, they reveal a play-safe attitude rather than a vision for the future of America. Obama was elected on a wave of optimism, which is certainly preferable to cynicism, but even before taking office, he has demonstrated that optimism is not enough. The economic crisis is only the most pressing reminder that politics calls for imagination as well as competence.