With nation in historic funk, how will Obama inspire us?

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 9, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Many presidents have faced threats from enemies abroad. Many, too, have confronted economic peril.

However, few have faced what Barack Obama will have to address as president: a crisis of confidence that reaches deep into the country's soul.

Genetically optimistic and confident, Americans today are dismayed about their future. Retirement savings have been decimated. Jobs are disappearing. Those who are still working find their paychecks threatened. Houses are worth less. The U.S. auto industry, once the engine of middle-class security, teeters on the edge of collapse. Americans are hunkered down, refusing to spend money and inadvertently feeding the very crisis they're fleeing.

Even as more people look to Washington for help after trusting their money and their fate to the marketplace for a generation, they still harbor deep suspicion about a government, too often corrupt or incompetent, that's let them down from Watergate to Hurricane Katrina.

"It's the worst crisis of confidence in our political and government institutions since 1932," pollster John Zogby said.

No matter how you measure it, Americans are decidedly sour on the state of their country. Consumer confidence dropped to an all-time low in December as measured by the Conference Board. The percentage of people who trust the government to do the right thing is at its lowest since the National Election Studies project started asking that question half a century ago. The ranks of Americans who think the country is on the right track rival all-time lows, according to several polls.

This corrosive pessimism could be as dangerous as any enemy the country or its leaders has faced. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said at his inauguration in 1933, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself: nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

As Roosevelt knew then, Obama knows now that restoring confidence and trust is crucial to restoring America. It will test every bit of the young president's skills and will require a broad array of responses, including a clear and convincing voice of optimism, bold proposals that tell people the government is doing something, and competence in governing that assures the land that there's a steady hand at the tiller.

Even before his own inaugural address, Obama has started signaling that it's vital not just to move the numbers on jobs charts, stock markets and balance sheets but also to put some of the swagger back in America's step.

"Many, many Americans are both anxious and uncertain of what the future will hold," he said during a major speech on the economy Thursday, adding that the country has suffered "a devastating loss of trust and confidence in our economy, our financial markets and our government."

"It will take time, perhaps years," he added, "but we can rebuild that lost trust and confidence. We can restore opportunity and prosperity."

How? If it takes recovery to build confidence, but confidence to feed the recovery, which comes first, and how can he drive it?

The first step is Obama himself, and the way he talks to the country.

Roosevelt had the chin-up, jaunty confidence captured in his campaign theme song, "Happy Days Are Here Again," and a smile that said, "We're going to be OK," even in the depths of the Great Depression.

Ronald Reagan had it, too, the master communicator who was ever optimistic that America could be the "shining city on the hill" as it wrestled with a severe recession in the early 1980s.

"He's got to pound on the bully pulpit," said Ken Goldstein, an economist with the Conference Board.

"I'm not sure any president can do much more than that," Goldstein said. "Given how low confidence is and the dismal outlook for the economy, when you get that far buried, I'm not sure even a reborn FDR could recapture the spirit of his fireside chats."

Goldstein said that a poor communicator such as George W. Bush could do more harm than good. Jimmy Carter in the 1970s gave what came to be called the "malaise speech" about a crisis of spirit then, but it did more to sap confidence than to build it.

Still, Goldstein conceded that the presidential pulpit can be worth a lot in the right hands, and Obama has some FDR-like advantages.

He's shown that he can deliver inspiring, powerful speeches. Also, he rides into office as a new voice, a young new face and a new party, all signs of the change the country hungers for. People already have invested a great deal of hope in him.

The second step is action.

By enacting a trillion-dollar package of spending and tax cuts to jump-start the economy, Obama hopes to send a big enough jolt not only to the economy but also to the psyche. He needs to convince people that the government is actively seeking solutions.

"Help is on the way" was the common refrain from several Democratic governors after they heard Obama talk about the proposal, sending a bumper-sticker message that's likely to be heard often in coming weeks.

"Part of the impetus for this huge stimulus package is an attempt not just to light a fire under the economy, but (to provide) a sense that they're trying something," Goldstein said.

A key audience will be the stock markets, which will act as a first indicator to the rest of the country about whether the plans might work. It was no accident that the first interview Obama gave after moving to Washington was to CNBC, the business news channel that Wall Street watches.

"If the markets accept it, he's on his way," said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota.

Perhaps. That may just buy him time, however. Time to push through additional measures to shore up Wall Street, housing, the auto industry. Time for all of it to start working.

"He has to manage this carefully. He has to make sure that expectations don't rise too quickly," pollster Zogby said. "If he shoots the whole wad at one time, and people in April or so don't feel they're better off, he could be in trouble."

A key is maintaining a sense of momentum, with more proposals from Obama and signs of recovery in the country, even if small. Seeing construction cranes and road crews could be such a sign.

It all has to work, though.

"He has to get an economic agenda through Congress that the people accept," Schier said. "After that, it's got to make a difference."

"Trust must be earned," former Clinton White House aides Elaine Kamarck and William Galston said in a recent paper.

Whether Obama can earn that trust is more than just an academic debate. It may be one of the most important tests of his presidency.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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