WASHINGTON — A familiar air of indecision preceded President Obama’s pep talk to the nation.
The first draft of his schedule for Monday contained no plans to comment on the downgrading of the U.S. credit rating by Standard & Poor’s. Then the White House announced that he would speak at 1 p.m. A second update changed that to 1:30. At 1:52, Obama walked into the State Dining Room to read his statement. Judging from the market reaction, he should have stuck with his original instinct.
“No matter what some agency may say, we’ve always been and always will be a triple-A country,” Obama said, as if comforting a child who had been teased by the class bully.
When he began his speech (and as cable news channels displayed for viewers), the Dow Jones industrials stood at 11,035. As he talked, the average fell below 11,000 for the first time in nine months, en route to a 635-point drop for the day, the worst since the 2008 crash.
It’s not exactly fair to blame Obama for the rout: Almost certainly, the markets ignored him. And that’s the problem: The most powerful man in the world seems strangely powerless, and irresolute, as larger forces threaten the country and his presidency.
The economy crawls, the credit rating falls, the markets plunge, and a helicopter packed with U.S. special forces goes down in Afghanistan. Two-thirds of Americans say the country is on the wrong track (and that was before the market swooned), Obama’s approval rating is 43 percent, and activists on his own side are calling him weak.
Yet Obama plods along, raising gobs of cash for his re-election bid and varying little the words he reads from the teleprompter. He seemed detached even from those words Monday as he pivoted his head from side to side, proclaiming that “our problems is not confidence in our credit” and turning his bipartisan fiscal commission into a “biparticle.”
He reminded all that the situation isn’t his fault (the need for deficit reduction “was true the day I took office”), he blamed the other side (“we knew ... a debate where the threat of default was used as a bargaining chip could do enormous damage to our economy”) and he revisited the same proposals he had previously offered to little effect: extending unemployment benefits and the payroll tax cut, and spending more on infrastructure projects.
This, he said, is “something we can do as soon as Congress gets back,” along with further deficit reduction. “I intend to present my own recommendations over the coming weeks.”
Over the coming weeks? As soon as Congress gets back?
In the White House briefing room after Obama’s statement, the press corps grilled Jay Carney about the lack of fire in the belly.
“The president said our problems are imminently solvable, and he talked about a renewed sense of urgency,” CBS’ Norah O’Donnell pointed out. “Why not call Congress back to work?”
Carney chuckled at this suggestion.
“I mean, the Dow dropped below 11,000 — where’s the sense of urgency?” O’Donnell persisted.
The press secretary uttered something about the founders and the separation of powers.
NBC’s Chuck Todd was not swayed. “Why not bring Congress back now?” he repeated, pointing out that “the American public seems to be in a little bit of a panic” while Washington says, “We’re going to stand back and wait until school starts.”
“It seems we’re getting a drumbeat here,” Carney said. “The press corps is leading here — always appreciated.”
At least somebody is.
Various reporters tried to elicit more information about Obama’s economic plans and deficit-reduction proposals, but Carney declined again to take the lead.
“I don’t want to get too far ahead of the process,” he explained, adding that Obama “will be contributing to that process, not driving it or directing it.”
“Why?” inquired Politico’s Glenn Thrush. “He’s the leader of the free world. Why isn’t he leading this process?”
That is the enduring mystery of Obama’s presidency. He delivered his statement on the economy beneath a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, but that was as close as he came to forceful leadership. He looked grim and swallowed hard and frequently as he mixed fatalism (“markets will rise and fall”) with vague, patriotic exhortations (“this is the United States of America”).
“There will always be economic factors that we can’t control,” Obama said. Maybe. But it would be nice if the president gave it a try.