Nothing to fear but everything itself?
With the stock market sitting at half the level it did a decade ago, and with new surveys showing carnage in consumer confidence and housing, I’m struck by the saturated language of the national nightmare. (It’s not just the apocalyptic headlines driving us to despair.) This story from the Associated Press today gathers the poetry of the pain — after its lead sentence announcing that American confidence went into “free fall” in February, the relatively short dispatch uses each of the following terms at least twice:
Superlative phrases in the story include “massive job cuts,” “driven to their lowest level ever” (consumer expectations) and “the largest drop in its 21-year history” (a national home price index).
Recently a friend sent me an email wondering why President Obama hasn’t done more to talk up confidence as he’s traveled around promoting his economic recovery plan. The answer probably lies most in the calculus of Capitol Hill, and the political pressure apparently needed to pass his legislative agenda. There’s also Obama’s admirable position that he won’t sugarcoat the truth about our troubles the way the administration before him did to such disastrous effect.
But it’s a daunting balancing act with perception at this point. You don’t have to be an economist to sense how the downward spiral of fear could itself become deeply damaging. (If it hasn’t already — as Robert Shiller warned in a recent column, a Great Depression narrative “could easily end up as a self-fulfilling prophecy.”) And Obama’s political opponents increasingly are able to agitate using raw emotional appeal: Last night CNN’s in-house ideologue Lou Dobbs hammered at Obama’s “fear mongering” and accused him of repeatedly talking down the markets and economy. In the New York Times today David Brooks feigns sympathy for the president while suggesting that Team Obama is in way over its head. (“I hope the president succeeds even though he probably won’t!” is the message.)
Many will be watching intently tonight when Obama addresses a joint session of Congress for the first time. The only positive polling in sight shows that he’s still got the thumbs-up on job approval from a decisive majority of the public. It’s a remarkable measure of confidence floating on a tide of ugly numbers — Americans believe Obama will sail us in the right direction, even with no horizon in view.