This financial crisis is a bit of a buzzkill.

I haven’t commented much, because I don’t think my political instincts are that brilliant even for the UK, let alone a country I haven’t visited for over a decade. But I’ve been enjoying the US elections ever since the primaries: the Americans always do democracy on a bigger scale than the rest of us, but this time round it has been more dramatic than ever. Not so much political theatre as political epic. The Cinton vs. Obama storyline alone was more exciting than anything that’s likely to happen in our own next general election; and it kept on getting more remarkable. I mean really: Sarah Palin! You couldn’t make it up. It adds to the fun, of course, that it definitely means the end of Bush and probably a Democrat in the White House.

But since the world’s financial sector apparently started circling the plughole, I’ve been unable to take the same kind of simple pleasure in the whole thing.

This is genuinely scary. When apparently well-informed people start making comparisons with the Great Depression: eep. Even if they’re saying things like ‘with the right government intervention we should be able to prevent this turning into anything like the Great Depression’: still eep. What Sir Alex Ferguson once called ‘squeaky bum time’.

Neither candidate has exactly covered themselves in glory over this issue. McCain’s stunt of ‘suspending’ his campaign and rushing back to Washington was the undoubted low point, but neither of them has said anything that convinces me that they have exceptionally clear insights or solutions to offer. Neither of them has made a strong and unambiguous case either for or against government intervention. I understand that since they are not in office and are in the middle of an election campaign, they are in the worst possible position to be unbiassed and pragmatic; perhaps it’s too much to expect to ask them to rise above the politics of the moment. But they haven’t. Neither of them has managed to step in and fill the leadership void left by the complete disintegration of Bush’s credibility.

When asked in the debate how the crisis would affect their spending plans, both of them fluffed the issue: Obama just restated all the things he wants to spend money on, and McCain came out with some ludicrous crap about cutting earmarks. I’m not expecting them to come up with new plans on the fly, several months in advance and without knowing how the situation will change, but it would have been nice to see them engaging seriously with the question.

And that leads me onto the last point: this is a horrible time to become President. I will be thrilled to see Obama elected, insha’Allah, but I think the job may be a poison chalice. Just to take healthcare: there’s no doubt at all that America can afford a proper healthcare system, since Americans already pay more than everyone else for healthcare as it is. But it is money that will have to come from somewhere, and the state of the economy will not make the politics of it any easier.

Frankly, even if it wasn’t for the economy, the next President would have enough on their plate dealing with Iraq. It may be that there there is no good exit strategy from Iraq, but we who invaded the country have some responsibility for what happens to it. As the shop sign says: you break it, you’ve bought it. I would vote for Obama, if I had a vote, at least partially from a belief that he wouldn’t have invaded Iraq in the first place, and therefore that he is hopefully less likely to get into some new foreign adventure of his own. But I don’t have any faith that he knows how to sort out the mess in Iraq now. Would McCain do any better? I don’t know. I suspect that to do the job properly would take decades, and I don’t think there’s the political will in America to commit to that kind of timescale anyway. The Iraqis might not be thrilled either.

All of which adds up to: It’s a lot harder than it was a few months ago to look forward to the election with a sense of optimism.

» the picture, Last Chance, is © huangjiahui and used under a by-sa licence.

3 replies on “This financial crisis is a bit of a buzzkill.”

You nailed it, man. The only way I could enjoy that debate was by imagining how well Obama was probably playing in Dubuque. Though McCain makes him seem like an intellectual, there’s still not a lot of there there… at least until he gets elected. People who took his course in constitutional law back in the day swear he really is a complex thinker. And to me his best attribute is that he seems to enjoy listening to other points of view and being challenged. He’s a very quick study. But we need a stronger Congress, not a stronger president. If we’d had the former, we never would’ve invaded Iraq.

I think if you listen to something like Obama’s speech on race after the Rev. Wright debacle, he comes across as intelligent and, as even more of a contrast to Bush, as thoughtful. And I’m sure he’s spent much of the last twenty years thinking deeply about the issues of bread and butter politics: healthcare, housing, employment, crime. I don’t get the sense that he has the same kind of deep expertise in military and financial matters, although the middle of a campaign isn’t really the best time to assess those things.

You can’t expect a new President to know everything about everything. That’s what advisors are for. And I think Obama would make a great President in the right circumstances; I just wonder if he has arrived at the wrong moment to make the most of his potential.

I’m not suggesting that he won’t cope: I dare say he’ll do fine. I would certainly vote for him. But he must wish he was like Tony Blair, coming into power on a wave of sentiment and inheriting a healthy, growing economy, no military entanglements, and a country feeling optimistic about itself.

I guess you just don’t know until they’re tested. If 9-11 had happened while Bill Clinton was president… well, I have no idea. You have to vote and cross your fingers. What we do know is that whoever is President next year will be tested.

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