I was pheasant hunting in western Kansas some months ago when I overheard two men trading jokes about Barack Obama. It wasn’t virulent racism. They were simply airing some vulgar, cut-rate slurs and lewd innuendoes to reinforce their sense of superiority by virtue of being white.
Some time later, I heard a second take on Obama from a Kansas farmer who’d sold me some chickens. When we got onto the subject of the economy, he recited his litany of financial woes and said that “survival” was his goal. He then surprised me by evoking the president-elect. “Maybe Mr. Obama can do something about it,” he said. “We’ve got to give him a chance.”
The first conversation merely reaffirmed the redneck stereotype of our state. The second conversation challenged it. The farmer’s comments signified how far we’ve come in the department of tolerance. But they also revealed a disturbing aspect of the Obama phenomenon: the expectation that our new president is a miracle worker who can save us.
There’s something close to worship in Obama-mania. It suggests the depths of despair we’ve plunged to, the loss of confidence in ourselves, our readiness to appeal to supernatural power for rescue. Is this the spirit that made this country great?
In a book of essays entitled “Land and Life,” Carl Sauer describes life on the American frontier. It is a story of “hard labor and iron thrift,” he writes. The pioneers toiled from sunrise to sunset, fighting disease and hostile elements, trying to wring a subsistence living from the soil. Entertainment for them was reading the Bible by candlelight or making a rare shopping trip to the nearest town.
Self-sufficiency was the name of the game. The pioneers had no sense that society owed them anything. Survival was up to them alone. The Kansas motto doesn’t say “To the stars with health and prosperity guaranteed by the state,” after all. It says to the stars with “aspera.” Hardships are part of the package.
Not to romanticize the pioneers or to make light of the current economic debacle. For many, these are catastrophic times. But we’ve been through this before and made it. Downturns are a fact of life. Recessions are a natural part of the life cycle of economies. They’re supposed to be occasions for reform, for rediscovering the virtues of deferred gratification and saving for a rainy day. We need a time-out to rein in our excesses before we become greedy, short-sighted and irrationally exuberant again.
Unfortunately, there’s little talk about tightening our belts or changing our ways. The government has gone on an unprecedented spending binge without any coherent plan. The recipients of bailouts are celebrating them not as life preservers but as windfalls. Our politicians are flooding the economy with devalued dollars designed to re-inflate the bubble. The idea is to get us borrowing, lending and spending again.
A few CEOs have volunteered to forego their multimillion-dollar bonuses, but most are still being handsomely rewarded for failure. With all the people losing their jobs, you’d think they’d at least qualify for a cut in pay. It’s been a pitiful spectacle to see these champions of capitalism meekly begging the government to save their hides. They turn out to be socialists after all. The real question is: Why are these people still in charge?
As for us little people, we’re pinning our hopes on the government too, even though flawed government policies were the main cause of the crisis. We still believe there’s such a thing as a free lunch, that “stimulus” money is a gift that comes from the government rather than our own pocketbooks. Greedy Wall Street financiers are blamed for the current nosedive, but there’s another kind of greed: the greed implicit in our middle class entitlement mentality. We think the Declaration of Independence guarantees us security and affluence as well as freedom. Challenges and setbacks aren’t fair. The world owes us a living.
A recent cartoon showed a couple of polar bears standing on tiny pieces of ice, wondering how much longer until Obama would take office, as if he’d just touch the thermostat and return the planet to its proper temperature. Some pundits even attributed Obama’s “flat” inaugural speech to his genius. He didn’t want to give a brilliant, soaring speech that would encourage unrealistic expectations. To Obama’s credit, he made reference to personal responsibility and paid tribute to the anonymous individuals who drive this country forward and create its wealth.
The new president has enormous appeal. He’s intelligent. He seems rational and energetic. But he can’t take the bitter medicine for us. He can’t invent the new technologies and enterprises that will propel our future growth.
We need leadership but we also need determination, optimism, confidence in ourselves. Recovery won’t come by fiat from Washington, D.C. If we expect Obama to wield a magic wand, we’re bound to be disappointed. If we pin our hopes on politicians and bureaucrats, we’re doomed.