Katy Burns: Anything can happen; president has only so much control of the agenda
In two days we’ll pick our president for the next four years. And there’s just one sure prediction we can make, no matter which man wins. Stuff will happen. Big stuff, maybe bad stuff. Stuff neither man has prepared for, prepped for, debated over in the course of this interminable campaign.
Barack Obama learned this. And Mitt Romney, should he be chosen instead, will soon learn it as well.
Just ask George W. Bush. Does anyone now remember that he campaigned in 2000 on a promise to bring to the office a new “humble” approach to foreign policy? He opposed “nation-building.” His focus would be on forging new, stronger ties with our Western Hemisphere neighbors, especially Mexico.
Then came Sept. 11, 2001. And the end of any “humble” approach to the world.
The terrorist attacks in our country transformed not only the nation but the man who led it. George Bush remade himself as protector of the American people and led us into not just one but two foreign wars with their terrible toll on our troops, our treasury and our reputation in the world. And the “war on terror” didn’t do a lot for civil liberties here at home.
It was one of those wars that brought Obama into the presidential race. He would end the conflict in Iraq, he pledged when he declared his candidacy in February 2007. He would fight against a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests. He denounced cynicism, petty corruption and the “smallness of our politics.”
The nation’s unemployment rate then stood at about 4.5 percent. By the time of the 2008 election, it was 6.5 percent and climbing. We were shedding close to 600,000 jobs a month. When the new president was inaugurated in January 2009, the jobless rate was shooting past 8 percent. It eventually hit 10.2 percent.
The Dow Jones average the day before Obama’s 2007 announcement was 12,580. By the day he was inaugurated, it had plummeted to 7,949, and by March 6, 2009, just two months later, it stood at a low of 6,443. It had lost 54 percent of its value since October 2007.
Roughly two years after the sunny day in Illinois when Obama announced his candidacy, the economy was a shambles with no end of decline in sight – surely something that neither he nor his advisers had anticipated back then.
Thanks in large part to the much-maligned stimulus program passed by the Democratic Congress shortly after Obama’s inauguration, a descent into an out-and-out depression was averted. The economy stopped its slide and is climbing back. Unemployment is down to 7.9 percent. And the Dow has rebounded to 13,232 at Thursday’s close of business. We are in a fragile recovery. But the surprises for the new president had only begun.
In April 2010, just as things started to look a bit brighter here for our economy, along came the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The resulting fire and ultimate collapse of the rig not only killed 11 people but caused about 200 million gallons of crude oil to pour into the seafood-rich waters of the Gulf over 87 days before it was finally capped.
The largest accidental oil spill in history and largest environmental disaster the U.S. had ever seen, it was an ecological and economic nightmare for the entire region. And it brought oil drilling in the Gulf to a sharp halt until the safety of all the rigs could be properly evaluated – an administration decision that was prudent and reasonable, even if it did lend itself to criticism now in a bitterly fought presidential campaign.
Then came the March 2011 cataclysmic earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant disaster in Japan. In this closely linked world, the economic effects of the triple tragedy were global, including here in the United States.
Along with these specific disasters and their negative effects on the struggling economy, consider two other unanticipated ongoing destabilizing events on Obama’s watch.
One, the continuing economic and social crisis in Europe seems likely to persist for years, with continuous turmoil in the world’s markets.
The second is the Middle East upheaval we call the Arab Spring. What began in late 2010 as a hopeful sign that long-suffering subjects in that part of the Middle East might be able to throw off their despotic rulers and begin to form true democracies has turned into something far more muddled.
And the last thing any Western nation – including ours – wants is yet more military involvement in that part of the world.
It’s not so surprising that the optimistic goals of that fresh presidential candidate of February 2007 were sidetracked, even apart from the implacable opposition of the Republicans to virtually anything he did as President. (Talk about the “smallness of our politics”!)
And now, of course, he – and we – face the legacy of the convergence of weather systems that has been dubbed Superstorm Sandy. The worst storm ever to have hit the upper Atlantic coast since record-keeping began, it has caused at least $50 billion worth of damage to our most densely populated region, one of the country’s most economically vibrant and vital parts. It dealt a massive blow to the functioning of the nation’s financial nerve center and damaged three of its busiest and most important airports, the most significant seaports on the East Coast and a massive network of refineries.
No one can guess when the damage might be repaired. And the federal government has to be involved. Otherwise, it won’t happen.
At least, after nearly four years, Obama is prepared for these curve balls. But is Romney? Because he’ll have to be, should he be elected.
Romney has based his campaign almost wholly on the ailing economy, touting his presumed ability – because of his business background – to fix it.
He has been running on that, in fact, since Obama was elected.
But the economy is finally getting better, even if more slowly than many would like. At this point, tampering with it might bring the whole fragile contraption back down. Romney surely knows this and won’t do anything drastic. But he’s likely to have new problems that he hasn’t planned for.
Superstorm Sandy suggests that the biggest threat to the nation a newly inaugurated President Romney might face is a suddenly exploding dual crisis: An aging national infrastructure, including an increasingly fragile electrical grid, is combining with widely predicted increasing numbers and ferocity of storms and ongoing ocean rise.
Yep, that pesky global warming and climate change no politician wants to talk about is rearing its urgent, if ugly, head.
If the United States is going to continue to dominate – or even compete in – an increasingly competitive global economy, it’s urgent that we find a way to prepare an infrastructure largely designed and built in the early 20th century for the numerous challenges of the 21st, including that posed by climate change.
Remember. No matter who is president, stuff will happen.
(Monitor columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)