The house, of course, is the White House. To make the metaphor more precise, it had been on fire since Sept. 15, 2008, when Lehman Brothers went belly up.
On the weekend of Sept. 14 and 15, a platoon of financial leaders saw the specter of a truly frightening economic ghost, the ghost of Depressions past. They met in an emergency session with Bush Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Obama’s shadow secretary Tim Geithner at the New York Federal Reserve Bank.
Topic A was: When Lehman crashes, it will send a shudder and then a panic through the market. How can a house fire raging out of control be kept from setting off a world-wide conflagration, a Depression so deep that recovery would take decades?
Obama had ears in that meeting. In fact, he had been in frequent, sometimes hourly contact with Secretary Paulson; he knew the details of the crisis and the unthinkable consequences if it was not controlled.
Out of these urgent consultations, including a bizarre White House meeting called by John McCain at which he said almost nothing, the Bush-Paulson TARP plan emerged as a fire wall to prevent a world-wide Depression.
This is how Obama’s presidency began: standing on the burning floor of the Peoples’ House. A year and a half later, he is confronted with a water-borne tragedy that portends years of economic, psychological and recreational damage.
Not since Franklin Roosevelt have we burdened an incoming president with such a load: a war winding down and another flaring up; man-made economic and environmental crises piling debt upon debt.
All of which raises the question: Is Obama’s intellect, character and temperament equal to the job? There is also a baffling irony: namely, the economic crisis and the Gulf Coast disaster were both private-sector failures that the government is trying to correct even while critics literally shriek, “Get government out of the way!”
Obama’s Harvard-honed intellect is a given and his cool demeanor — maybe on occasion too cool — passes those tests, but what about character? The best book I’ve ever read on the subject is Presidential Character by the late Duke scholar James David Barber.
Measure what you know of Obama by Barber’s definition:
“Character is the way the president orients himself toward life — not for the moment, but enduringly. Character is the person’s stance as he confronts experience. And at the core of character, a man confronts himself. The president’s fundamental self-esteem is his prime personal resource … Down there in the privacy of his heart, does he find himself superb, or ordinary, or in some intermediate range?”
Here’s how Obama questions himself about his own character in his book, The Audacity of Hope:
“(N)amely, how I, or anybody in public office, can avoid the pitfalls of fame, the hunger to please, the fear of loss, and thereby retain that kernel of truth, that singular voice within each of us that reminds us of our deepest commitments.”
Even the most sterling character must confront an unpredictable and humorless Fate. Obama was fated to connect with national yearnings for change and hope for a better future, raising high expectations and then, smack, be hurled against an economic panic even before he had his own team in place.
Another obstacle was the decision of the Republican Caucus to oppose everything the new administration proposed, everything. In fact, the only effective bipartisanship was cooperation with Bush-Paulson policies before Obama was elected.
Yet, the young president, in fewer than 18 months, has several successes and just one serious and costly error on his scorecard.
He corrected the Supreme Court’s unfair ruling against fair pay for women in the Lilly Ledbetter Act, turned world opinion from hostility to positive views of America, proposed Wall Street reforms on the verge of passage, signed an historic nuclear pact with Russia, and passed an act that finally put the health of Americans on par with Europeans.
It was his determination, almost an obsession, to pass health care that gave his administration a self-inflicted injury.
People in the depths of the Great Recession were seized with confusion, dislocation and anxiety about the future. The country needed reassurance, a visible sense that the president knew the fear and would make things right.
With unanimous Republican opposition, New Deal-type legislation was out of the question. But the president could have filled the summer recess with a barnstorming tour of the country, reassuring by his presence and stockpiling political capital for an aggressive jobs bill and then health-care legislation.
Instead, the stale summer air was filled with wild imaginings of what a then-nonexistent health-care bill might do; it was even suggested that there would be juries to decide how to euthanize grandmothers.
Consequently, a flawed health-care bill was passed that is unpopular with a majority, which might cost Democrats in the upcoming midterm election.
Yet, experts say the fear of tumbling backward into Depression is behind us, and the Gulf Coast tragedy reminds us that we often need government.
Not bad for a president who entered the White House when it was on fire.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.