Monday, September 22, 2008

$700 Billion: Where's the Fireside Chat?

I was reading the Washington Post this evening, as I typically do, and I noted a piece on the front page where folks in Manassas Park, VA were asked what they thought about the government's proposed bailout of banks. Manassas Park is notable because it is apparently a part of Prince William County that's been hit hard by foreclosures. It's one of those exburb type communites--30 miles from DC--where subdivisions have cropped up over the past decade and where gas prices hit commuters hard. Read the piece here.

In any case, despite the desperate straits folks find themselves in, hardly anyone expressed support for the government's bailout plan.

Then it dawned upon me: Where's the Fireside Chat?

If this is the greatest economic crisis since the nation faced the Great Depression, why hasn't the President appeared on national television to explain the crisis in detail so the average person could understand it? If this is so important to the national well being, shouldn't the President at least try to get public opinion behind it?

Let's put this into some historical perspective. Banks were failing all over the country in 1933, right before FDR was inaugurated. The average level of educational attainment was much lower than today-perhaps an 8th or 9th grade education. People did not understand why banks were failing, and why the federal government had called for a Bank Holiday. People were scared about losing their life savings. And so FDR, in the first of his fireside chats, spoke plainly and directly to the nation, putting them at ease, explaining how banks work and why the Bank Holiday was necessary. After the Bank Holiday ended, bank deposits soared. FDR had created a sense of national confidence despite the dire situation.

Listen to the first Fireside Chat here:

The educational attainment of Americans has gone up dramatically over the past 70 plus years. And yet, the crisis facing the mortgage and banking industry is much more complex. The average American simply doesn't understand what's going on--and yet we are expected to pledge more money than the government has spent on Iraq in an apparent bid to save those who lived outside their means. While there might be a very good reason to do this, it is absolutely necessary for the President to exercise leadership on this and to explain, carefully and patiently to the American people, why this is necessary--and necessary fast.

The bailout is no sure thing. Democrats are putting conditions on their support (some of those conditions are reasonable, while others are not) and Republicans in return are calling for their own conditions. If it is truly important to get this through Congress before they recess for the fall elections, and to do so without conditions, then the President must act and act forcefully. Maybe the President does not want to do so for fear that his low approval ratings might actually make the prospects of passage even worse. I'm not sure I agree.

But sitting back, without explaining to the nation why we should trust him, his Secretary of Treasury, his appointee to the Federal Reserve Chairmanship, and Capitol Hill's leadership, is abdicating one of his greatest responsibilities as an executive.

No comments: