The politics of lowered expectations

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Now, four years later, and just a few weeks into his second term, the president used the first few minutes of his 2013 State of the Union to look back on some of the progress he had purportedly made in meeting these ambitious goals. He cited our gradual emergence from a “grueling recession,” the creation of new jobs under his administration, the renewal of the American auto industry, the partial “healing” of the housing market, and the “rebounding” of Wall Street.

But, in projecting ahead, the president’s 2013 agenda was much more modest. This time, his aspirations included raising the minimum wage and “removing the financial deterrents to marriage” for the poor. Much of his speech reflected an impulse to make government dollars stretch further — a laudable goal, but hardly a rallying cry for a nation facing difficult and important policy choices.

Even on the issues where the president spoke most passionately, his pleas for action were tempered. The culmination of his call for gun control was urging Congress to provide a “simple vote” on existing legislation. Similarly, his insistence that we must “look out for our fellow Americans” was bolstered by the sense that our government should not provide a worse example than its people.

Perhaps the tone of lowered expectations reflected the reality of a second term president facing a divided Congress and a public with somewhat mixed views about the president’s major policy accomplishments like the Affordable Care Act and the TARP.

But comparing the 2009 State of the Union to the most recent speech reveals another powerful reality — and one that has troubling implications as we move into the legislative challenges of the next four years.

In 2009, the president, the Congress, and the populace at large seemed to be under no illusions: the nation was facing an economic crisis. Indeed, it is somewhat chilling to read President Obama’s delicate (and not entirely convincing) pledge that bank deposits were “safe” and citizens could “rely on the continued operation of our financial system.” Indeed, four years ago the president spoke directly to this state of national anxiety, by linking his response to the financial meltdown with previous periods when governments turned calamity into opportunity. Among other examples, he cited the post-Civil War infrastructure boom and the World War II GI Bill.

In 2009, the president and the Congress acted decisively because everyone agreed there was a crisis and they rallied around it.

Four years later, President Obama reassured his audience that we faced only a “manufactured crisis,” a reference to our past and future legislative deadlines for resolving impasses on the budget and debt ceiling. Presumably, the president meant that the underlying financial issues did not pose trenchant problem on their own - -only the “artificial” deadlines imposed by Washington and the consequences (sequestration, tumbling markets, deepening distrust) these could provoke.

But this conclusion isn’t obvious. Our continued butting against these deadlines speaks to underlying and seemingly intractable substantive disagreement about budgeting, policy priorities, and the status of entitlements. The underlying crisis is not that we don’t have a big enough hourglass, but that the nation needs a totally new business plan — and we can’t even decide on what fonts to use for the spreadsheets.

The president, the Congress, and the nation must seize on this state of affairs as an emergency — and must respond with the focus, initiative, creativity, and compromise that often results from such a shared sense of crisis. Until that happens, we will drift to a future in which our financial tribulations worsen and our ability to address them weakens.

Washington’s unwillingness to think in crisis mode is a problem of its own making.