First, do no harm. That is a useful injunction for doctors, lawyers, and, it turns out, U.S. presidents.
But President Obama's useless speech Monday about the basic soundness of the American economy managed to reinforce all the concerns Americans on the left and right have about his stewardship of the country.
The speech did at least temporary harm. As soon as he finished speaking, the already jittery financial markets plunged.
Americans didn't want to hear that we're fine people or that Warren Buffett thinks that we should have an impeccable credit rating.
They didn't want him to repeat his basic talking points: the need to marshal the "political will" to extend the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance benefits, or create an infrastructure bank.
They didn't want to hear his perfectly reasonable desire to solve the debt crisis over time by cutting spending after the economy recovers and by raising more revenue from what the president now calls "tax reform" rather than new taxes.
Americans wanted to hear what President Obama was planning to do to create jobs and stop our economy from slipping over an economic abyss into a double-dip recession.
His calm, passionless, "voice of reason" message, without a single new proposal except his pledge to make specific proposals in the future and work with the Congressionally designated super-committee to address the deficit and debt crises – "leading from behind again" – actually panicked the markets. And no wonder. Americans were looking for a leader, and what we got was the professor again.
One must sympathize with the president. Last week was his worst week ever in the job.
First, he turned 50, usually traumatic for most people, even politicians.
Then he became the first president to have a downgrading of America's credit worthiness on his watch – an action taken by Standard & Poor's, a company that made a two trillion dollar mistake in its own budget calculations and which gave the highest credit rating to Lehman Brothers on the verge of bankruptcy and to the mortgage-backed securities that helped cause the 2008 financial crisis. How do you spell "chutzpah" on Wall Street?
Then he presided over the deadliest day in Afghanistan – the loss of 30 Americans soldiers, most of them Navy Seal commandos, some from the same unit that killed Usama Bin Laden. (He lauded their courage and sacrifice in the only convincing part of his today's speech – at the end of that speech, which he introduced with the world's most awkward transition: "One More Thing.")
Then markets plunged.
The president has now managed to deepen the alienation of the right – which I believe unfairly accuses him of being a free-wheeling tax and spender whose profligacy is responsible for the nation's slow growth and falling credit worthiness.
Now, the left of his party, too, is in full rebellion. On Sunday, Drew Westen, a professor of psychology at Emory, articulated the fury of liberal Democrats in a New York Times Sunday Review essay.
He excoriated Obama for failing to provide a "counternarrative" to that of the right and for engaging in "the politics of appeasement" with the Tea Party. The public, he wrote, was desperate for a Roosevelt who would name names and assign blame – to his predecessors. (Hasn't Obama done a lot of that?) Instead, it got more rhetoric. Instead of indicting his predecessors' economic policies that had eliminated eight million jobs, "in the most damaging of the tic-like gestures of compromise that have become the hallmark of his presidency," Westen wrote, "he backed away from his advisers who proposed a big stimulus, and then diluted it with tax cuts that had already been shown to be inert." The predictable result was a "half-stimulus that half-stimulated the economy."
How can one explain this lack of leadership? Westen offered several harsh theories. Perhaps Obama is, as conservatives have alleged, too inexperienced and hence, incompetent. Obama, he wrote, "had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state." He had a "singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography." Finally, before joining the Senate, he had voted "present" rather than "yea" or "nay" 130 times, "sometimes dodging difficult issues."
But wait. Westen has an even harsher explanation, namely that America is being "held hostage not just by an extremist Republican Party but also by a president who either does not know what he believes or is willing to take whatever position he thinks will lead to his re-election."
Ouch. No wonder Mr. Obama looked so very shaken during a speech that was intended to boost the nation's confidence.