Magazine article The New Yorker

Mad and Madder

Magazine article The New Yorker

Mad and Madder

Article excerpt

When Barack Obama was running for President, people used to wonder if he appeared so calm because he and his advisers had calculated that the American electorate wouldn't be able to handle an angry black man. Now it's beginning to look as if Obama might actually be calm. Certainly his late-breaking claims that he's angry about A.I.G. employees' bonuses--delivered recently inside a garland of good-natured joshing, from Jay Leno's guest chair, and again last week at a press conference whose over-all purpose was to project steadiness--would not have come across as expressions of anger to anybody who happened to be watching with the sound turned off.

American politics is returning to a long-forgotten state of preoccupation with banking. When the financial system was deregulated over the course of the past few decades--with, we now see, disastrous effects--the public didn't even seem to notice. The idea that American politics could be about finance, as it was during the controversies over the Bank of the United States at the beginning of the nineteenth century, over the gold standard at the end of it, and over bank and stock-market regulation during the early New Deal, seemed impossibly quaint. That has changed.

It's important to remember, though, that pure populism has never really governed in this country. Franklin Roosevelt adopted ideas that originated in the anger of Americans who had been--no other word for it--screwed by financial manipulators, but politically he had to fend off populists like Huey Long, rather than be a populist himself. Populism is not necessarily liberal, anyway. In Europe, more than here, the recession is already having a political and social effect--protests serious enough to threaten or topple governments have taken place in Greece, Hungary, Latvia, and the Czech Republic. Most of the unrest entails workers contesting job losses and cuts in government benefits, but some, like that in Hungary, has a right-wing, ultranationalist character. In the United States, populism has been associated not just with calls for economic equality but also with nativism and racial violence. That may be one reason that President Obama, to judge by his manner, if not his words, sees the virtues of calm, rather than anger, so clearly.

Obama has to try to guide the country out of the crisis, and rage isn't a policy. (A ninety-per-cent tax rate on the biggest of the A.I.G. bonuses, such as the House passed two weeks ago, when there was far more pressing business to attend to, isn't a policy, either.) It also isn't a politics--not many of the leading avatars of rage are trying to organize it into a coherent response to the financial crisis which might help the tens of millions of ordinary Americans who are in bad trouble right now. Nationalization of the worst off of the big banks--the favorite solution of economists who are one notch to the left of the economists in the Administration--is a policy, and one that might plausibly be sold to people who are angry at bankers who continue to make a lot of money through these hard times.

But it isn't difficult to guess why the President chose instead to endorse the new phase of the financial rescue plan that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner unveiled last week. Obama surely did not decide to run for President because he was burning with a passion to reform the financial system. He has to address the crisis, and he is trying to add enough new controls to the system to prevent a repeat of it, but it looks as if his heart is with the big new programs in his budget and with his foreign-policy initiatives. …

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