Obama And the Optics of Confidence

Optics are optics.  What you say?  Look at it this way.  What do you remember from the Bill Clinton Presidency?  If you answered Monica Lewinsky to that question, you know about optics.  Despite all the good economic and social things Bill Clinton did, he’s remembered for a cigar and an 11th hour sexual dalliance.  In the public realm, it’s not necessarily what you are doing, but how it gets done.  If there aren’t good optics, public policy can rarely move forward.

There are examples of this everywhere.  One of the latest in the political arena took place during the last election.  Ok, let me see, if you are a Liberal what policy do you remember about the last election.  You say the “Green Shift.”  Bingo, again.  With Stephane Dion taking several minutes to explain it, what chance did the ordinary Liberal candidate have in rural Ontario or rural British Columbia?  Essentially the optics of the Green Shift was all about the “carbon tax” and who knew what that was.  Nobody wanted to go there.

Of course right now we’re dealing with this great cataclysmic economic meltdown.  How’s that for hyperbole.  Nonetheless, our Prime Minister and finance minister have to deal with it.  The President of the United States gets the same privilege.  So does the President elect, Barack Obama.  Let me tell you something, this time around, I think the world is lucky.  The optics of who does what this time around is going to be big for the world economy.

This is what I’m saying.  When Stephen Harper and Jim Flaherty say something about the economy we listen.  When George Bush says something about the economy we listen even more intently because he is the American President who is the commander in chief of the richest economy in the world.  However, when Barack Obama speaks, in this post-election world, he has the power to change everything.  Yes we can.

Keep in mind I’m not a cheerleader here.  However, to me it’s obvious.  Stephen Harper and Jim Flaherty might be our economic leaders but they aren’t big players on the world’s economic stage. George Bush is the biggest now, but trying to fix the economic meltdown that happened on his watch and which he is responsible for has tainted his swagger.  Barack Obama has the charisma and the vision of hope to instill a large amount of confidence back in the world’s economic system.  It is his time and he can do this if he tries.  He has what Ronald Reagan had, but times are different and he’ll have to find a way to get it done.

We’ll see.  Watching Obama lately has been a bit like peek-a-boo.  He’s been putting his team together, but of course George Bush is still President.  As he introduced his economic team during a news conference, he said the country is facing an economic crisis of “historic proportions.”  He went on to say “if we no act swiftly and boldly most experts believe that we could lose millions of jobs next year.”

Those words surely are true.  However, when it comes to optics, I’ve wondered if they were right.  While I believe Obama has the ability to make the optics work for him in this economic calamity, saying things, which are simply “scary”, doesn’t do a lot of good and that’s how I took his statements last week.

Let me give you another example.  Last week I was the guest speaker at the Dresden Rotary Club, speaking on the Canadian economy.  I was asked what fiscal stimulus was and why it was needed.  To illustrate it I took $15 out of my pocket and told everybody if we all spent this money “en masse”, it would cause an economic stimulus, which would spur growth in the Dresden economy.  However, I held up the $15 and clenched it in my fist.  I told everybody that’s the problem, you’ve all got your hand on your wallet and nobody wants to spend right now.  So aggregate demand keeps dropping, along with prices because nobody has the confidence to step out and believe.

In my opinion, that’s Barack Obama’s job.  He has to create the optics of success, change and confidence looking forward.  That’s not the long and short of it.  The US bailout of Citibank today is also part of this very long story.  However, at the end of the day, it’s all about bringing confidence back and creating the optics to get that done.  Barack Obama, you said in the past, Americans lived by a simple creed, “yes we can.”  It’s time for you to make everybody else believe.

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