Bracing Ourselves

All week the word I kept thinking of was “braced.” America is braced, like people who are going fast and see a crash ahead. They know huge and historic challenges are here. They’re not confident they can or will be met. Our most productive citizens are our most sophisticated, and our most sophisticated have the least faith in the ability of our institutions to face the future and get us through whole. They have the least faith because they work in them.

*   *   *

QuestionmarkTuesday I talked to people who support a Catholic college. I said a great stress is here and coming, and people are going to be reminded of what’s important, and the greatest of these will be our faith, it’s what is going to hold us together as a country. As for each of us individually, I think it’s like the old story told about Muhammad Ali. It was back in the 1960s and Mr. Ali, who was still Cassius Clay, was a rising star of boxing, on his way to being champ. One day he was on a plane, going to a big bout. He was feeling good, laughing with friends. The stewardess walked by before they took off, looked down and saw that his seatbelt was unfastened. She asked him to fasten it. He ignored her. She asked him again, he paid no attention. Now she leaned in and issued an order: Fasten the seatbelt, now. Mr. Clay turned, looked her up and down, and purred, “Superman don’t need no seatbelt.”

She said, “Superman don’t need no airplane. Buckle up.” And he did.

We all think we’re supermen, and we’re not, and you’re lucky to have a faith that both grounds you and catches you.

But during the part in which I spoke in rather stark terms of how I see the future, I think I saw correctly that the physical attitude of some in the audience was alert, leaned forward: braced. Again, like people who know a crash is coming. Afterward I asked an educator in the audience if I was too grim. He looked at me and said simply: No.

A sign of the times: We had a good time at lunch. It is an era marked by deep cognitive dissonance. Your long-term thoughts are pessimistic, and yet you’re cheerful in the day to day.

*   *   *

On Wednesday, in an interview with Politico, Dick Cheney warned of the possible deaths of “perhaps hundreds of thousands” of Americans in a terror attack using nuclear or biological weapons. “I think there is a high probability of such an attempt,” he said.

When the interview broke and was read on the air, I was in a room off a television studio. For a moment everything went silent, and then a makeup woman said to a guest, “I don’t see how anyone can think that’s not true.”

I told her I’m certain it is true. And it didn’t seem to me any of the half dozen others there found the content of Cheney’s message surprising. They got a grim or preoccupied look.

The question for the Obama administration: Do they think Mr. Cheney is essentially correct, that bad men are coming with evil and deadly intent, but that America can afford to, must for moral reasons, change its stance regarding interrogation and detention of terrorists? Or, deep down, do the president and those around him think Mr. Cheney is wrong, that people who make such warnings are hyping the threat for political purposes? And, therefore, that interrogation techniques, etc., can of course be relaxed? I don’t know the precise answer to this question. Do they know exactly what they think? Or are they reading raw threat files each day trying to figure out what they think?

The bad thing about new political eras is that everyone within them has to learn everything for the first time. Every new president starts out fresh, in part because he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. Ignorance keeps you perky.

*   *   *

On the economy, I continue to find no one, Democrat or Republican, who has faith that the stimulus bill passed by the House will solve anything or make anything better, though many argue that doing absolutely nothing will surely make things worse by not promising at least the possibility of improvement through action.

Meanwhile, the inquest on President Obama’s great stimulus mistake continues.

His serious and consequential policy mistake is that he put his prestige behind not a new way of breaking through but an old way of staying put. This marked a dreadful misreading of the moment. And now he’s digging in. His political mistake, which in retrospect we will see as huge, is that he remoralized the Republicans. He let them back in the game.

Mr. Obama has a talent for reviving his enemies. He did it with Hillary Clinton, who almost beat him after his early wins, and who was given the State Department. He has now done it with Republicans on the Hill. This is very nice of him, but not in his interests. Mr. Obama should have written the stimulus bill side by side with Republicans, picked them off, co-opted their views. Did he not understand their weakness? They had no real position from which to oppose high and wasteful spending, having backed eight years of it with nary a peep. They started the struggle over the stimulus bill at a real disadvantage. Then four things: Nancy Pelosi served up old-style pork, Mr. Obama swallowed it, Republicans shocked themselves by being serious, and then they startled themselves by being unified. But it was their seriousness that was most important: They didn’t know they were! They hadn’t been in years!

One senses in a new way the disaster that is Nancy Pelosi. She was all right as leader of the opposition in the Bush era, opposition being joyful and she being by nature chipper. She is tough, experienced, and of course only two years ago she was a breakthrough figure, the first female speaker. But her public comments are often quite mad—we’re losing 500 million jobs a month; here’s some fresh insight on Catholic doctrine—and in a crisis demanding of creativity, depth and the long view, she seems more than ever a mere ward heeler, a hack, a pol. She’s not big enough for the age, is she? She’s not up to it.

Whatever happens in the Senate, Republicans have to some degree already won. They should not revert to the triumphalism of the Bush era, when they often got giddy and thick-necked and spiked the ball. They should “act like they been there before.” They should begin to seize back the talking mantle from the president. And—most important—they must stay serious.

The national conversation on the economy is frozen, and has been for a while. Republicans say tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts. Democrats say spend, new programs, more money. You can’t spend enough for the Democratic base, or cut taxes enough for the Republican. But in a time when all the grown-ups of America know spending is going to bankrupt us and tax cuts without spending cuts is more of the medicine that’s killing us, the same old arguments, which sound less like arguments than compulsive tics, only add to the public sense that no one is in charge.