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The Baseline

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Back in the days when I was a lawyer representing mining companies (you may have noticed the absence of environmental advocacy in this space), we used to arrange, on acquiring a new mining site, for a “baseline study.” The object was to put the company in a position to demonstrate, when some later issue arose over pollution, what part of the problem was there when we started. I think it’s useful at 11 days before the inauguration of Barack Obama to do a baseline study–to look at what he’s inheriting.

The simple description would be to say it’s an unprecedented mess, and indeed to use a few expletives in the process. The closest analogy certainly is the turnover from Herbert Hoover to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933. I’m with John Judis: “We may not simply be facing a steep recession like that of the early 1980s, from which we can extricate ourselves in a year or two, but something resembling the Great Depression of the 1930s.” I also share Judis’s fundamental concern that Obama’s conduct does not yet show that he fully appreciates the magnitude of the calamity that hangs over the nation and the world at this moment.

So here are three of the flashing red lights, all from the newspaper headlines of the last few days:

  • 7.2. The current unemployment rate is 7.2%, which in the view of many analysts considerably understates the problem. Taking the approach used by other industrialized nations, our rate might actually be more on the order of 10%. In any event, Bush 43 leaves office with a sixteen-year high in unemployment—matching the record that inspired the American electorate to drive his father, Bush 41, from office. By contrast, Bush inherited a country with a 4.2% unemployment rate, the lowest in 16 years, following an administration that created 20 million jobs. Bush destroyed 2.6 million jobs in the course of 2008 alone.

  • 2 trillion. The Congressional Budget Office recently put out its best guess as to the budget deficit that Bush was leaving behind for FY 2009: $1.2 trillion. But that number is almost certainly low. For instance, Strategas analyst Dan Clifton reworks the numbers and comes up with $2.2 trillion. In any event, it will be the biggest deficit in America’s history. By comparison, Bush came into office following the longest sustained peace-time economic expansion in U.S. history under Clinton, who left behind a budget surplus of $559 billion. The total cost of the Bush Administration is estimated by Joe Stiglitz and Linda Blimes in our January cover story at over $10 trillion. Bush was the costliest presidency in U.S. history, by a wide margin; the debt burden he’s leaving behind may be close to triple the one he inherited.

  • Afghanimire. The prestigious congressionally created think-tank the U.S. Institute of Peace issued a massive analysis of the Bush Administration’s performance in Afghanistan and the mess it’s leaving behind for Obama. Conclusion: George W. Bush and his administration have had close to eight years to address the process of building a stable and friendly government in Afghanistan, and they leave office with no measurable achievements, notwithstanding billions expended. All the analysts are agreed on the nature of the problem, too. The Bushies constantly pursued short-term, highly cosmetic goals while neglecting—or even aggravating—the fundamental problems that make the country unstable. Some of their stupider policies were apparently driven by a desire to play to their domestic Religious Right political base—leading Bush to prioritize a highly counterproductive drug suppression program pursued using tactics that were guaranteed to fail from the outset.

Is it really possible for a single president in a single term to bring the nation back to the status quo ante the arrival of the Bush-Cheney hurricane? Almost certainly not. And as we measure Obama’s progress over the coming years, we should measure it realistically against the steaming pile of excrement he inherited from his predecessor. Obama truly has inherited mission impossible.

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