Analysis of the #FiscalCliff abounds. The issues are distilled into the categories of taxes versus austerity. Revenues and spending cuts. Who, if anyone, should pay more taxes? What happens to investment related taxes? What happens to social security? What is the impact on entitlements in general? Should we tackle Medicare reimbursements? Is Obamacare in the deal? You get the picture.
To me, however, there is a lot more at stake here that transcends economics. The fiscal cliff was a steamroller that we saw coming a mile away. There are crises that emanate from various sources that we cannot anticipate or prepare for — hurricanes that decimate Staten Island and New Jersey, grotesque acts of violence on school children, attacks on New York City, etc. There are few, however, that we can prepare for, and, hence mitigate or avert altogether. This crisis was one of the latter. And in this era of great cynicism about what America has become and our position on the world stage, the fiscal cliff (a right hook to our economy was telegraphed for all to see) presented an extraordinary opportunity. Yes, that’s right, an OPPORTUNITY.
I am a well documented two time voter of Barack Obama. The first time I pulled the lever I did so with great enthusiasm and hope. The second time I did so much more reluctantly, but still confident that he was the better man. But what I have learned over the years is that leadership is defined by many a quality, with intelligence and integrity only being a couple of them. Leadership is about consensus building, inspiration, and, unfortunately, salesmanship. And so while I am of the opinion that Obama is faced with a great deck stacked against him, and that those named McConnell, Cantor, and Boehner are playing a binary game of “we win if Obama loses”, I am disheartened nonetheless at the lack of ability to get in front of the problems, bring unique viewpoints to the table, and show that we can act in the greater good.
So what was the opportunity? The opportunity was for our leaders to let pragmatism prevail over dogmatism to show America’s citizens and the world that when it really counts we can get it done. As Doris Kearns Goodwin stated after the election, we tend to glorify the “good old days.” We may long for the days of the Whigs and Tories, but they used to beat each other up on the House floor. Maybe I am being naive, but that feels a lot more honest than what goes on these days. In a media age it all seems so disingenuous and petty. To watch Obama on Meet the Press this morning was painful. “The Republicans can’t say yes.” “I am fighting for the middle class.” “I am not a liberal.” Rhetoric, rhetoric, and more rhetoric. He builds consensus with business leaders to do his bidding for him, but when did he invite the Republican leadership (a new oxymoron) to the White House, put a pot of coffee (or bourbon) on the table, and say “no one is leaving without a deal”? And while they are all saving face on the Sunday morning news shows, Americans (like me) are fighting the anxiety over the fate of their small businesses, their earnings power, and their children’s prospects in a country whose government is ALWAYS behind the issues and NEVER in front of them. Choose a topic, any topic — energy, education, social security, diabetes — each one a steamroller crisis. Where is the pro-active leadership on these? And to think that one day, when it’s too late, we will say that we saw it coming but didin’t have the will or leadership to get at it.
So here we are on a Sunday night in the 11th hour before our nation faces a self-imposed calamity at a most fragile point in our economic history. And that is awful. But the true tragedy is that we let it happen. To me, that is what keeps me up at night. That we are so dysfunctional, inept, and dogmatic is the real issue that makes me most fearful. When it really hits the fan we need leadership, not politicians who are more concerned with protecting their legacies or placating special interests. Naive perhaps, but if it was going to happen, now was the time for everyone to check their egos at the door and recognize what was a stake. No matter the outcome of a vote that may or may not happen before midnight tomorrow night, our leadership blew it–a squandered opportunity whose wake will perpetuate a crisis of confidence that long outlasts its economic ramifications. So sad.