Americans Need Courage from Leaders

Jan. 30, 2012

“Now, a return to the American values of fair play and shared responsibility will help protect our people and our economy. But it should also guide us as we look to pay down our debt and invest in our future.”

— President Barack Obama, State of the Union address, Jan. 24, 2012

This speech was the latest reminder of the shockingly low state of political discourse in America. I’m not singling out Obama for special condemnation, given that these addresses always are a potpourri of banalities, regardless of which president is offering them. Yet, Tuesday’s speech was a vivid reminder of the shoddy thinking so common at the highest level of the federal and state governments and why we are — in the more precise, but less-lofty words of a former president — in deep doo-doo.

Criminologists have remarked on “the banality of crime,” the reality that most criminals are not dark geniuses, but ordinary dolts driven by the basest motives. The State of the Union is the ultimate example for the banality of American politics, of the reality that the people who want to reform us haven’t the slightest clue about anything. They are predictable and bland, traders in base ideas and driven mainly by ego and the desire to help those groups that assure their re-elections.

California is the starkest example. A friend of mine called the other day and told me that it finally dawned on him that Gov. Jerry Brown, despite his clever wordplay, is really not so brilliant. Here’s a man who actually believes that raising taxes and “investing” in green jobs will save California.

‘City on a Hill’

Politicians from Obama to Brown to Mitt Romney to Newt Gingrich want so desperately to build a legacy, save our state or nation, and create some “shining city on the hill,” but they want it all on the cheap.

Democratic pols want to sound like John F. Kennedy while Republicans sing hosannas to the legacy of Ronald Reagan, but such legacies don’t come from cheap banalities and the retreading of empty words. They come from tackling real issues and fixing real problems. The courage needed to do the latter is in short supply, given that most politicians crave adulation but don’t realize that putting that goal first almost assures that they won’t receive it.

Look at Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had a historic opportunity to bring the state back from the brink, yet changed course dramatically after his first defeat at the ballot box. He chose to be loved above all else and has ended up a scorned figure.

Many of us had hoped that Brown, who decades ago persistently pursued the presidency but no longer seeks higher office, would embrace the tough work of real governance and take on his own allies — i.e., the public sector unions — who are the key obstacle to reviving California. Instead, he has embraced one foolish answer, higher taxes, and has governed in a way that’s not too different from the two failed governors before him.

Spending Problem

If Brown were a serious man, he would acknowledge that the problem isn’t a lack of revenue, it’s the way the state spends money. But he has taken the easy, banal course and will, in time, be forgotten. And so, too, will Obama, who continues to believe that government is the font of all wisdom and energy in this nation and that populist attacks on evil-doing mortgage companies, for example, are more crucial than serious policy.

“Let’s never forget: Millions of Americans who work hard and play by the rules every day deserve a government and a financial system that do the same,” he intoned. “It’s time to apply the same rules from top to bottom. No bailouts, no handouts, and no cop-outs. An America built to last insists on responsibility from everybody.”

Banality is one thing, but this veers into dishonestly. No president — not even the terrible one that preceded Obama — has embraced the culture of bailouts, handouts and cop-outs more than Obama. His administration epitomizes the term “crony capitalism,” whereby friends and backers of the leaders get large infusions of taxpayer cash (e.g., Solyndra) and then cop out about why the money disappeared. In his speech, Obama sung the praises of the automobile bailout and called for more bailouts and government investments.

Instead of dealing seriously with the financial crisis, he embraced a kindergartner’s view of what happened (greedy banks foisted bad mortgages on decent people!), called for a special investment-crimes unit to crack down on financial wrongdoers and then pledged a new bailout for homeowners who are underwater in their mortgages, many of whom acted irresponsibly as they bought houses they knew they couldn’t afford and/or tapped their home’s equity and spent it.

Said Obama, “And while government can’t fix the problem on its own, responsible homeowners shouldn’t have to sit and wait for the housing market to hit bottom to get some relief. And that’s why I’m sending this Congress a plan that gives every responsible homeowner the chance to save about $3,000 a year on their mortgage, by refinancing at historically low rates.”

Just what we need — yet another irresponsible subsidy underwritten by U.S. taxpayers. In reality, the real estate market needs to hit bottom before it can rebound, and Obama’s plan will only delay the day of reckoning. This is more pabulum and more false hope for people who think the government is going to save them.

Soaring rhetoric and promised bailouts won’t fix what’s wrong in California or in the United States. It’s time for a little reality and some tough choices. It’s time for leaders with less banal rhetoric and more courage.

— Steven Greenhut

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