This Is Not a Test. This Is Not a Test.
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
It’s always great to see the stock market come back from the dead. But I am deeply worried that our political system doesn’t grasp how much our financial crisis can still undermine everything we want to be as a country. Friends, this is not a test. Economically, this is the big one. This is August 1914. This is the morning after Pearl Harbor. This is 9/12. Yet, in too many ways, we seem to be playing politics as usual.
Our country has congestive heart failure. Our heart, our banking system that pumps blood to our industrial muscles, is clogged and functioning far below capacity. Nothing else remotely compares in importance to the urgent need to heal our banks.
Yet I read that we’re actually holding up dozens of key appointments at the Treasury Department because we are worried whether someone paid Social Security taxes on a nanny hired 20 years ago at $5 an hour. That’s insane. It’s as if our financial house is burning down but we won’t let the Fire Department open the hydrant until it assures us that there isn’t too much chlorine in the water. Hello?
Meanwhile, the Republican Party behaves as if it would rather see the country fail than Barack Obama succeed. Rush Limbaugh, the de facto G.O.P. boss, said so explicitly, prompting John McCain to declare about President Obama to Politico: “I don’t want him to fail in his mission of restoring our economy.” The G.O.P. is actually debating whether it wants our president to fail. Rather than help the president make the hard calls, the G.O.P. has opted for cat calls. It would be as if on the morning after 9/11, Democrats said they wanted no part of any war against Al Qaeda — “George Bush, you’re on your own.”
As for President Obama, I like his coolness under fire, yet sometimes it feels as if he is deliberately keeping his distance from the banking crisis, while pressing ahead on other popular initiatives. I understand that he doesn’t want his presidency to be held hostage to the ups and downs of bank stocks, but a hostage he is. We all are.
Great and difficult crises are what produce great presidents, so one thing we know for sure: Mr. Obama’s going to have his shot at greatness. This crisis is uniquely difficult in four respects.
First, to get out of a crisis like this you need to let markets clear. You need to let failed companies, or homeowners, go bankrupt, unlock their dead capital and reapply it to thriving entities. That is how the dot-com bust ended, and out of that carnage emerged a whole new set of companies. The problem with this crisis is that A.I.G., Citigroup and General Motors — and your neighbor’s subprime mortgage — are not Dogfood.com. You let the market clear them away, and we could all be wiped out with them. Therefore, the president has to find a way to punish bad financial actors without setting off another Lehman Brothers domino effect.
Second, we need to get a market going that would bring fair value and clarity to the “toxic mortgages” crippling the balance sheets of our major banks. This will likely require some degree of government subsidy to private equity groups and hedge funds to get them to make the first bids for these toxic assets by guaranteeing they will not lose. This could make great policy sense, but be a nightmare to sell politically. It will strike many as another unfair giveaway to Wall Street.
Unfortunately, the president may have to look the American people in the eye and explain that “fairness is not on the menu anymore.” All that’s on the menu now is whether or not we avoid a system meltdown — and this will require rewarding some new investors.
Third, the president may have to make some trillion-dollar decisions — like nationalizing major banks or doubling the economic stimulus — with no real precedent and without knowing all the long-term ramifications.
Finally, to do all this, the president has to make us realize how dangerous a moment we’re in, without creating a panic that will prompt Americans to put every dime in their mattresses and undermine the economy even more.
All this will require leadership of the highest order — bold decisions, persistence and persuasion. There is a huge amount of money on the sidelines eager to bet again on America. But right now, there is too much uncertainty; no one knows what will be the new rules governing investments in our biggest financial institutions. If President Obama can produce and sell that plan, private investors, big and small, will give us a stimulus like you’ve never seen.
Which is why I wake up every morning hoping to read this story: “President Obama announced today that he had invited the country’s 20 leading bankers, 20 leading industrialists, 20 top market economists and the Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate to join him and his team at Camp David. ‘We will not come down from the mountain until we have forged a common, transparent strategy for getting us out of this banking crisis,’ the president said, as he boarded his helicopter.”