This week’s Economist slams “western” leaders for failing to provide the strong leadership that is needed during an economic crisis. The paper draws parallels between the state of the “west” today and Japan’s political paralysis in the 1990s.
In the early days of the economic crisis the West’s leaders did a reasonable job of clearing up a mess that was only partly of their making. Now the politicians have become the problem. In both America and Europe, they are exhibiting the sort of behaviour that could turn a downturn into stagnation. The West’s leaders are not willing to make tough choices; and everybody—the markets, the leaders of the emerging world, the banks, even the voters—knows it.
Later, the editorial gets more personal.
Sometimes crises beget bold leadership. Not, unfortunately, now. Japan has mostly been led by a string of weak consensus-seekers. For all their talents, both Mr Obama and Mrs Merkel are better at following public opinion than leading it.
The observation reinforces my (and others’) suspicion that politicians from Generation Jones are too ready to strike a bargain when they should give a lead. Worse, they may come up short when political courage is called for.
President Barack Obama, born in 1961, and chancellor Angela Merkel, born in 1954, are vintage Jonesers. So is Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron (born 1966), who has made a string of policy U-turns. So, for that matter, is the former Australian PM Kevin Rudd, (born 1957). Last year, Rudd made a fatal flip—flop, over the carbon tax, and that led to his defenestration.
Let’s stick with Barack Obama, the most prominent Joneser and the one in the news right now. The political crisis over America’s debt ceiling is not of the president’s own making; far from it. The Economist leader castigates the House Republicans for their recklessness over the debt and their delusional approach to fiscal policy. The paper correctly lays more of the blame for the impasse at their door than with the White House.
But President Obama has now caved in and agreed to a debt ceiling deal that contains large spending cuts and no promise of revenue enhancements. During the crisis, he has not set key principles and kept to them (for instance, no tying the debt ceiling to deficit reduction). He has allowed the Republicans to frame the big issue as “cutting the deficit”. Worse, a lot of the time, it’s been unclear what his bottom line is, what he values most, what he’s really there for.
Last week, Elizabeth Drew argued convincingly that Obama is a weak negotiator, a “pushover”, and that he has acted this way because his re-election strategy is predicated on the questionable notion that in 2012 independent, centrist voters will reward him for making spending cuts.
The president has been too ready to believe that the Republicans will “do the right thing” and that he should look for compromise, in order to appeal to the better angels of their nature. The truth is, the Republicans have been playing a tough, ruthless game. They have spotted a chance to realise their ambitions to slim the US government right down. They also know that a weakened president, beset by economic gloom, can be more easily beaten in 2012.
One explanation for Mr Obama’s naïve approach to negotiating with implacable opponents concerns his age – in other words, the generation he comes from. Bruce Bartlett argues that Obama has not had the tough sorts of life experiences that presidents from the World War II generation went through. They learned the hard way that the key to dealing with tough, intransigent opponents is to always work from a position of strength. Yet President Obama has not lived through similar experiences. (Hat tip: Paul Krugman)
Here’s another explanation. The president has been moulded by a more ambiguous political age. He and his Generation Jones cohorts in other “western” countries have seen the collapse of communism and state socialism. They have also witnessed first-hand the crises of post-war Keynesianism and the triumph of neo-liberalism. They have watched Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, baby boomers from moderate left parties, make their peace with the legacies of Thatcher and Reagan. It worked: Clinton and Blair led their parties back into office and kept them there. And Jonesers have seen Anglo-American capitalism start to evolve and adapt, however slowly and imperfectly, to new challenges, like the environmental crisis.
Given this cocktail of influences, the Jonesers were never going to go all out for “big change”. Still, they should be able to explain who they are and what they stand for. And they should not be unable to deal with opponents who, by being more ideological, more political and more ruthless, can shift rightwards the “middle ground” that most of the Jones leaders, including Obama, instinctively search out.
As a fully paid up member of Generation Jones, I hope that our leaders won’t end up being remembered simply as political technicians whose worldviews could most easily be described in shades of grey. Or, as the well meaning temporisers who could be trusted to find the compromise solution to the big questions that were framed by others. But I’m not holding my breath.