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Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2009 12:19 am

What if things are as bad as Obama says?

Stirring words are welcome in troubled times

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President Barack Obama shakes the hand of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts after taking the oath of office.
PHOTO BY ALEX WONG/MCT

People are so ready to be relieved of the Bush presidency, and to end the Iraq war, that Barack Obama could have said anything, or nothing, in his inaugural address and it would still be called eloquent and elegant. The guy knows how to use the language, a skill the more welcome following eight years of one who did not. From his first book, to his 2004 speech to the Democratic convention, to his Philadelphia speech on race, Obama has skillfully used words as tools to transform hearts and move his program along. Though “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off” may not rank with “Ask not what your country can do for you . . .” this hopeful nation was not disappointed by the speech.

The positive reaction may be in part because most people don’t really believe things are quite as bad as he says, or will take as long to fix as he says. At a time of such great expectation as this is, I wouldn’t venture a discouraging word, but he did. He took the oath “amidst gathering clouds and raging storms . . . . That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war . . . . Our economy is badly weakened . . . . Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered.” To make matters worse, there “is a sapping of confidence across our land — a nagging fear that American’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.”

In his speech, Obama rallied the determination of the American people to solve these looming economic problems, but Wall Street was unimpressed, posting the worst loss on any Inauguration Day since 1941. How long will the excitement and determination last in the face of continuing losses of jobs, pensions, homes and businesses?

Last week, some 100 of Springfield’s business leaders met on the coldest day of the year for the Chamber of Commerce’s annual economic outlook breakfast. “When this finally turns around, we’ll be in a position to take advantage of a growing economy,” is how Chamber chairman Mike Houston characterized the organization’s efforts. Then the guest speaker, Dr. Robert Genetski, an economist from Michigan, spent 45 minutes explaining that Obama’s approach is likely to make the economy worse instead of better. The proposed stimulus package “will do further damage to the economy,” Genetski says. “Since the government doesn’t have any money, it has to go into the tight credit markets and borrow the funds. As with previous stimulus moves, taking funds from savers and transferring those funds to others doesn’t stimulate anything. It simply means that political pressures determine the allocation of credit instead of market pressures. The end result is less productivity.”

That’s just one economist, and I’m sure Obama has better minds at work for him. But it is worth noting that Springfield business leaders have been warned that the huge stimulus plan may not work.

The speaker at this year’s Martin Luther King, Jr. breakfast had good instruction for Obama supporters who will inevitably find themselves differing with the president. Lawrence Guyot, a veteran of Mississippi civil rights struggles in the 1960s, passed along Michelle Obama’s advice: Support him when he’s right and don’t support him when he’s wrong. “Obama’s empowerment is no susbstitute for your empowerment,” he told the breakfast crowd. Lincoln wasn’t right on slavery until Frederick Douglass — and nearly losing a war — opened his eyes. “The country changed Lincoln and Lincoln changed this country,” Guyot said.

After noting those cautions from recent visitors to Springfield, it’s good to return to the powerful conclusion of Obama’s inaugural message and be stirred for the long slog ahead. “Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”

Fletcher Farrar is editor of Illinois Times.

Contact him at ffarrar@illinoistimes.com.

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