Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Barack Obama's Crisis of Confidence

Armchair analysts and professional pundits will be dissecting tonight's presidential debate over the next couple of days. Partisan bloggers, of course, will be spinning their candidates performance and looking for the fatal "gotcha" moments emerging during the exchange.

Frankly, though, both John McCain and Barack Obama performed well, and neither side scored a knock-out punch; nor did either candidate make a major blunder. McCain continues to dominate on questions of national security and he exudes a perennial sense of duty and service to nation. McCain also seemed more intent to launch pointed jabs at the Illinois Democrat; and Obama, in response, refused to take the bait, apparently seeking to stake-out the high-road of a putative front-runner.

Yet, beside the housing bailout and the candidates' concluding remarks (on the direction for the nation's future), there was one moment that offered a particularly striking contrast between the candidates.

After a few initial questions on the economy and the federal role in helping Americans through the hard times, moderator Tom Brokaw posed
an Internet question on national sacrifice:
Since World War II, we have never been asked to sacrifice anything to help our country, except the blood of our heroic men and women. As president, what sacrifices - sacrifices will you ask every American to make to help restore the American dream and to get out of the economic morass that we're now in?
Senator Obama's response offered a revealing window to his essential dismissal of traditional American optimism and the nation's history of up-by-the bootstraps perseverance:
You know, a lot of you remember the tragedy of 9/11 and where you were on that day and, you know, how all of the country was ready to come together and make enormous changes to make us not only safer, but to make us a better country and a more unified country.

And President Bush did some smart things at the outset, but one of the opportunities that was missed was, when he spoke to the American people, he said, "Go out and shop."

That wasn't the kind of call to service that I think the American people were looking for.

And so it's important to understand that the - I think the American people are hungry for the kind of leadership that is going to tackle these problems not just in government, but outside of government.

And let's take the example of energy, which we already spoke about. There is going to be the need for each and every one of us to start thinking about how we use energy.
Take note of this ...

Obama says each and every one of us must "start thinking about how we use energy."

This is Obama's call for national sacrifice: to reduce oil consumption? Sounds more like an economy-killer, and it refects, fundamentally, the kind of "malaise" sensibility that marked Jimmy Carter's presidency during the 1970s - a presidency of limits, and limited visions.

Recall, President Carter, on July 15, 1979, delivered his "crisis of confidence" speech:
I know ... that government actions and legislation can be very important. That's why I've worked hard to put my campaign promises into law - and I have to admit, with just mixed success. But after listening to the American people I have been reminded again that all the legislation in the world can't fix what's wrong with America. So, I want to speak to you first tonight about a subject even more serious than energy or inflation. I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy....

The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.

The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.
President Carter - history will recall - was a failed one-term chief-executive, a president stymied in both domestic and foreign policy, and one who's disastrous leadership on the economy left a long legacy of inflation and unemployment that wasn't corrected until the Reagan administration's economic boom of the mid-1980s.

During tonight's debate, John McCain - in great contrast to Obama - spoke with assurance on the "sacrifice question," noting:
Look, we can attack health care and energy at the same time. We're not - we're not - we're not rifle shots here. We are Americans. We can, with the participation of all Americans, work together and solve these problems together.
In other words, there's nothing we can't do if we set our minds to it. Americans have risen to the challenge, time and again; and when facing rough times, we keep our chins up and barrel through the hard patches.

Barack Obama, instead, announced that we have to cut back, lower our sights - that government will make health care a right and not a responsibility of personal initiative. Obama wants an expansion of government in economic and energy policy, precisely when polls show the country
is not looking for a second New Deal.

The American people witnessed a preview tonight of a 1970s Democratic reprise - the comeback of Carteresque crisis and malaise, absent, so far, the cardigan sweaters and double-digit stagflation statistics.