Politico has a classic piece today on the grim background for the president's re-election campaign next year. I think it overdoes things a bit – I guess they had to sell the piece somehow – but its content tells us something important, even if it's something we already know.
America has hit a wall. Its long term growth trend faltered at the end of the last century and has flatlined and then collapsed in this one, as Nate Silver grimly reminds us (also today). It is not as bad as the Great Depression (that's the only good news), but it is the next worst thing. You can attribute it to several things: the surreal debt-financing begun under Reagan and turned into "deficits-don't-matter" dogma under GWB; globalization which increased competitive pressure on the middle-class American worker more drastically than any other event in the nation's recent history; the resources gobbled up by a welfare state bequeathed when Americans saw it as their birth-right to get richer and richer and richer for ever; or something we don't quite yet understand.
But the upshot is that the music stopped on Bush's watch, like a needle scratching across a vinyl record, and the continued silence is deafening. It's foolish, I think, to believe that the stimulus hurt; it helped short-term and may well have prevented a second round of the 1930s. Ditto the astonishing turn-around of America's automobile industry (see today's GM news); and extension of unemployment benefits way past their due date. But none of this works up against the powerful forces now arrayed against higher growth or middle class revival.
For me, the scariest thing is that company profits are booming, and yet we still are trapped in this decline. The reason? Not just globalization, but our attempts to disguise the new challenges by bubbles: tech and real estate. These tonics gave us a temporary sense of still gaining wealth, but only intensified the crash when their snake-oil ran out. This seems to me to be the real issue here. It's deeper than Bush or Obama. The weak recoveries that follow financial crashes have made matters worse. The delusion that the US is still rich enough to police the whole world doesn't help either. And there's no reason this will end any time soon, except by a grim and difficult paying down of collective and individual debt, in the context of a depressed global economy (with China's growth still highly unstable).
Sorry, but elixirs won't change this. We have no money for them. There are things we can do – agree on long-term debt-reduction, reform taxes, cut the defense budget, hope education can help middle and lower middle class Americans compete better on a global stage. But until we get used to this new period of austerity, and accept it, we will bang our heads against walls.
I confidently predict that Americans have so little experience of stasis or relative decline, let alone long-term hardship, that they will continue to take out their woes on various presidents required to govern at a time like this. My fear is that this despond and despair will be exploited by crazies on the populist right, as they have been in history. But culture war won't create jobs. Even a civilizational war, as some on the far right are itching for, won't help. We are not in the era when mass mobilization can be achieved in war or peace.
The best outcome, I suspect, will be a return to American realism, a determination to do the things we can while avoiding the things that will only give us a temporary hit. In this, the president's best hope is continued honesty with the American people, calm, and resilience. In hard times, radicalism appeals. But so too does small-c conservatism. In dark economic times, people sometimes keep a hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse. But all this requires a stoicism at odds with American character and history.
I guess I'm saying that the long great ride seems to be over. The question is simply whether Americans can or will handle it without losing their heads.