American Presidents, Baseball, Books, Football, Nebraska, Obama, Politics, Wall Street


On Wall Street and the NCAA

The nation’s political chattering classes have had plenty to chatter about over the last couple of weeks – debt ceilings, riots in London, The Gang of 12, Rick Perry, European sovereign debt, S&P credit ratings and whether Barack Obama can become relevant again.

Lyndon Johnson once reportedly switched off the television in the Oval Office after watching the revered and legendary CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite tell the country that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable. “Well,” LBJ said to no one in particular, “If I’ve lost Walter, I’ve lost the country.”

A voice of the inside the beltway progressives, the talented and occasionally snarky Maureen Dowd, isn’t Uncle Walter, but she writes like Obama may have lost her. What Dowd writes has a canary in the coal mine feel about it.

“Faced with a country keening for reassurance and reinvention, Obama seems at a loss,” Dowd wrote this week in the New York Times. “Regarding his political skills, he turns out to be the odd case of a pragmatist who can’t learn from his mistakes and adapt.

“Many of his Democratic supporters [in Iowa], who once waited hours in line just to catch a glimpse of The One, are disillusioned.”

Emory University psychologist Drew Westen, a sometimes “message guru” for Democrats, offered an even more scathing critique of the President’s failures in a highly commented upon Times Op-Ed piece on August 7.

Rather than name names and hold accountable those responsible for the continuing economic mess, Westen said, Obama has utterly failed to address the fundamental need for a president – any president – to be the national narrative setter; to tell a story about what’s gone wrong, how it can be fixed and how the bad guys responsible will be held to account.

In contrast, for example, with Franklin Roosevelt’s full throated condemnation of Wall Street and greedy business leaders as the villains of the original Great Depression, Westen say Obama punted from the first day of his administration. Said Westen, “When faced with the greatest economic crisis, the greatest levels of economic inequality, and the greatest levels of corporate influence on politics since the Depression, Barack Obama stared into the eyes of history and chose to avert his gaze.”

Obama, Westen said, can’t bring himself to assemble the suspects in a political line-up and identify the bad guy(s).

He’s got a point. With this morning’s headlines comparing the economic roller coaster ride of the last few days to the awful days in the fall of 2008, I’m hard pressed to think of anyone in a position of authority and power who has been held accountable for the jobs lost, the mortgages foreclosed and the lives uprooted.

Standard & Poors, by all accounts, totally missed the risks of the subprime mortgage meltdown in the last decade when it should have been front and center judging and publicly reporting such risks to the economy. Now S&P’s nameless suits downgrade sovereign debt in high-minded tones, while appearing on the Sunday talk shows lecturing Washington’s leaders on political responsibility. The ratings agency, meanwhile, lobbies Congress not to require that it report “significant errors” in its own performance.

Tim Geithner, the Treasury Secretary, who was at the New York Fed when the economy’s foundation began to crumble, apparently wants to leave his job as more folks call for his head, but Obama has begged him to stay. George W. in back on the ranch and the big Wall Street banks roll on, while the Congress systematically weakens the Dodd-Frank legislation and prevents the appointment of a tough consumer advocate.

Accountability is obviously on an extended summer vacation in the Hamptons.

Contrast the macro-world’s lack of accountability on the economy and little things like jobs and mortgages with the penalties for screwing up in college athletics. Boise State University’s long-time athletic director was fired yesterday by the school’s president in advance of the anticipated sanctions that will be leveled against the school for a variety of infractions involving college sports.

Some boosters immediately questioned the decision to fire a 30-year employee and there will be the predictable second guessing of Boise State President Bob Kustra. But as more of the story comes out, give the one-time politician turned college president this much: the new to the big-time Bronco athletic program is facing its first real big-time challenge with the anticipated NCAA sanctions and Kustra’s personnel action just set the standard for compliance at BSU for the foreseeable future. Good, bad or indifferent that is accountability.

The Ohio State University arguably took too long to fire its slippery football coach, but it happened. It’s now reported the school has paid just south of a million bucks to unravel what went wrong with the Ohio State football program.

In a perfect world there are no mistakes. No one needs to stand and take responsibility and be held accountable. But there is a real world out there that is messy and requires accountability. Particularly in a representative democracy, beset with deep economic, social and political problems, accountability has never been more required.

The British poet, essayist, humorist, and much more Dr. Samuel Johnson famously said “When a man knows he is to be hanged…it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” He might also have said it concentrates the mind of those who observe the hanging.

Accountability is not about grudges or getting even and it’s certainly not about shifting the blame. It is about understanding what when wrong and who was responsible, all in the interest of corrective action.

Dr. Johnson also wisely said “hell is paved with good intentions,” which is another way of saying good intentions don’t mend a broken economy or straighten out college athletics. Accountability isn’t the whole answer, but it is a pretty good start.