The Confidence Game

President Obama should hire himself an expectations czar and immediately elevate the person to a Cabinet-level position. Forget all the talk about a secretary of culture. What the country really needs is a secretary of high expectations, a person who goes to work every day with the singular purpose of preserving the president's high approval and job-performance numbers and vigilantly guards against their natural erosion. Why? Because, right now, confidence in Barack Obama is all that is standing between us and a complete collapse into economic and emotional depression.

The past week illustrates why the president should approach it with some urgency. Day after day we woke to the news that more jobs had disappeared from the economy -- 524,000 new unemployment claims in December, and all the predictions are for things to get worse: "We thought it was horrendous when 524,000 lost their jobs in December," Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye said recently. "This month I would anticipate 600,000. ... You’re averaging 20,000 a day. "

Why does the daily disappearance of 20,000 jobs from the American economy not feel like we're on the verge of collapse? Because people think Obama can fix it. Consumer confidence is at its lowest mark in more than 40 years. Consumer spending, the engine for two-thirds of the activity in the national economy, is shrinking fast. Seventy-eight percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the state of the country, and the world economy, from Latvia to London, is in the grip of crisis. But Obama's approval rating is at historic highs.

The most recent Gallup Poll reports that 68 percent of Americans approve of Obama's job performance so far. Only John F. Kennedy's 72 percent in 1961 was higher. George W. Bush took office with a disapproval rating of 25 percent; Bill Clinton was working against a 20 percent disapproval the day he was sworn in. The 12 percent disapproval the new president enjoys means that an extraordinary number of people who voted against him, or who did not vote at all, are pulling for him, and that may be because we have no other option.

Obama, so far, has signed one bill into law and issued five executive orders. He has issued seven presidential memoranda, dealing with everything from CAFE standards to the Freedom of Information Act. He has declared a couple of federal emergencies for counties in Arkansas and Kentucky. The point is that after a week, there is not much on which to judge him. But whatever it is he's got going, he's got to keep it up.

In so many ways nothing has changed, except in cases where the news has gotten worse – joblessness, the housing debacle, the government debt. So the confidence that Obama can get us out of this mess may now be functioning like a market mover itself, keeping us afloat when we should be sunk. He is his own confidence stimulus package. We have survived the dot-com bubble; the financial-equity bubble, the housing bubble, and now we have the Obama bubble. History says it'll burst, but we need it to go on for awhile. Obama seems to understand how to do that; he is telling us everyday what he's doing; he seems to be working on what we want him working on, and does not seem driven by ideology or distracted by irrelevancies. That will keep him in good stead for a long while. He is a perfect combination of Bill Clinton's "I'm gonna wake up everyday and go to work for you" and FDR's intense engagement and intimacy with the American people. The one missing element, and it is too early for this, is a sense that he's enjoying himself.

How can 80 percent of Americans think the economy is getting worse while still being so irrationally optimistic about Obama's ability to fix it? The real tap dance ahead for the White House is to keep those personal approval numbers up until such time as they can be converted into economic confidence in the credit market and among consumers.

Conventional wisdom has been -- and the administration has bought into this line of thinking -- that Obama needs to tamp down the high expectations that trailed him into office like an unending comet's tail. The reasoning is obvious: to lower expectations to make them more easily met and to impose a higher threshold for public disappointment, the real source of all political troubles.

Two days before his inauguration, Obama stood at the Lincoln Memorial and warned of trouble ahead. "I won't pretend that meeting any one of these challenges will be easy," he said glumly. "It will take more than a month or a year, and it will likely take many."

He does not have that much time, and how much time he has bears a direct correlation to confidence in his ability to solve the big problems, and that is why he needs an expectations secretary.

The early GOP reaction to Obama's stimulus package shows why. A week and a day into his administration, the president got a vote on his stimulus package in the House. It passed, but it did not pass the "Obama Way." There were no Kumbaya moments. Despite all Obama's efforts to woo the opposition, not a single Republican voted for the bill, which passed 244 to 188 votes, with 11 Democrats joining the Republicans in dissent. The GOP party-line vote may signal that the era of good feeling between Obama and the GOP may have been entirely imagined and that we're headed right back to the partisan guerrilla warfare that has been the hallmark of our politics for the past 20 years. Right-wing talk radio is primed and ready to go.

Americans, in general, are hoping for something different -- change. That is what Obama promised and the high expectations are not an obstacle but a necessity. He should keep them there or hire someone to.

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