It would be too much to ask the United States, in the middle of the strangest economic episode in over a century, to elect a president who understood what was going on and what was at stake with the economy. To be sure, there are people regularly visiting the White House who do understand the significance of this moment. But their voices are drowned out by others who are confused and sometimes panicked, such as Bernanke, who has inexplicably been renominated to his position.
As to the president, Obama seems to regard the economy as a nuisance, a problem for others to solve while he sets about his priorities of restoring democracy and rescuing the middle class — as if those were objectives that could meaningfully be separated from the economy as a whole. And so, while we may eventually get some help for the queasy downward spiral of the health care sector or the country’s addiction-addled approach to energy, both perhaps in a form that echoes the recent assistance to Detroit, the larger economy will have to take care of itself.
What is more, it will have to do so without the stability that Bill Clinton and Alan Greenspan so relentlessly pursued in the mid 1990s. Even Clinton and Greenspan would be hard pressed to stabilize the economy of 2010 and 2011. But instability does not change the economic imperatives that drive people to solve problems.
The mid 1990s, you may recall, was when the myth of the “hard core unemployed” was finally busted. Yes, there were millions of people who were undisciplined and illiterate, but they proved that they could get organized and learn to read and write if there was a reasonable prospect of a job that might require that. Getting out of the current scrape may similarly require us to bust several economic myths. It scarcely matters which ones — we have plenty to spare.
This is not the kind of change that comes from Washington, even if there were someone there actively managing the economy. It is more likely to come from Detroit, Las Vegas, or Atlanta: in evolutionary theory, high stress leads to rapid change. The topsy-turvy economy of the next 32 months or so will lead to surprising changes. It is hard to predict exactly where the changes will take place, but the need for change — that part is easy to predict.