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Doctor Obama

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The patient is in trouble. That much we know. About that everyone is certain. There are mounting job losses, record deficits, banks failing, mortgages underwater, layoffs looming. Last month, we lost as many jobs as there are in the state of Maine. One down, 49 to go.

No, you won't find too many people disagreeing with the diagnosis. Crisis. Dire. Recession. Depression. Meltdown. Likely to get worse before it gets better. If it gets better.

Just one problem. What to do?

The easiest case to make is the one that may well be the worst: Do nothing. If you're not responsible for anything but high ratings or scoring debating points, this is your ace in the hole. Whatever anyone suggests is wrong. Full of holes. Not detailed enough. Unlikely to solve the problem. Pork laden. Deficit producing. An abandonment of free markets.

The only problem with doing nothing is that almost everyone who is responsible for anything or has been in the last six months -- and I mean Treasury secretaries both Democratic and Republican, presidents and presidential candidates both Democratic and Republican, ranking committee members, government economists, Federal Reserve chairmen, just those folks -- believes that doing nothing is the worst thing we could do, sure to make matters worse, sure to cause more pain and not less.

But once you decide to do something, there are no perfect solutions. Not even close to perfect, truth be told.

You go to the doctor when you're sick, and you don't want to be told in terrible detail just how sick you are. You don't want to be lectured about who is responsible for the sickness or what someone might have done last year or last decade to avoid it. You don't want to be told how little we know, how much worse it could get. You certainly don't want to hear that no one knows anything, and that the illness may never get better.

You want a cure. You want an answer, a magic bullet -- twice a day for two weeks and good as new.

No such luck. The market tanked because Tim Geithner, the new Treasury secretary, was supposed to come out with a plan that would ensure that the unknowable amount of troubled assets out there would be troubled no longer. He was supposed to cure polio in his second week in office. When his plan made clear that the magnitude of the problem hadn't been resolved since yesterday, investors were disappointed. Where is Jonas Salk?

Barack Obama, in his first presidential news conference, was certain of some things. He was certain that some action is required, that the only ones who will win if we do nothing are the overpaid talk show hosts who get high ratings by railing against big government, as if deregulation hadn't played a major role in creating the mess. Ah, the luxury of total unaccountability.

But he didn't pretend that the plan the mere mortals in the House and Senate have been trying to agree on is perfect. It isn't perfect. Anyone who studies it carefully is certain to find things wrong with it. He didn't promise that it would be a sure-fire cure for our economic ills. He admitted that it was flawed in ways he doesn't even know yet.

It's not what you want to hear from your doctor or your president. Can't we talk about A-Rod instead? Can't we go back to fighting about the octuplets?

The short answer is no. The president is offering, pushing, cajoling Congress to pass a plan that he knows isn't perfect, but that he and the people around him are certain is better than nothing.

Is he right? How do I know? I'm not a doctor. I'm not an economist. I haven't spent the last 20 years studying markets. Then again, neither have the blowhards who spend their days attacking him and their nights avoiding the economic mess confronting everyone else. They don't know any more than I do. They certainly don't know more than the president.

For my money, he's smarter -- and has more talent around him. He's taking his best shot and being honest about its limits. It may not be what we want to hear, but it's what we need to hear and what we elected him to do. Sausage for supper. Here's hoping.

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