The right man at the wrong time?

The second thought occurred to me because I had made my train journey to Washington from Princeton University. There I had been lecturing, 30 years on, about how Margaret Thatcher confronted economic crisis when she first came to power in 1979. The point that strikes one is that it was the crisis which, above all, galvanised her, captured her intellect, harnessed her energy. Like Churchill in relation to the Second World War, she felt that all her life had been a preparation for that hour. Her vision of what was wrong with her country, and how to put it right, was seen entirely through the prism of the crisis.

The same cannot be said of Barack Obama. This is not merely because he has no previous experience of governing. It is because his idea of what he wants to do is really something quite different from what is actually happening to his country. In his inauguration address, he spoke of the need to get on with the business of “remaking America”. For him, that economic stuff is not really part of the remaking, but a distraction from it. His vision of a more social-democratic country was conceived almost without reference to the greatest economic catastrophe to hit America for 80 years. He barely had to argue, or even think about it before or during the campaign. It shows. He says that his education, energy and health reforms must happen so that “such a crisis [the financial one] never happens again”, but he merely asserts the link: he does not prove it.