Crisis Addiction


James D. Hardy, Jr., PhD and Leonard Hochberg, PhD

As the Obama administration took office in the midst of economic travail, with the market going down and home foreclosures going up, Rahm Emanuel, the White House Chief of Staff, remarked that “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”  Emanuel appears to have meant this remark as a serious indication of how the Obama administration planned to govern.  A crisis – real or imagined, induced or exacerbated – would galvanize Congress, the media, the academy, and the people at large into supporting administration policy.  In the midst of a crisis, Rahm Emanuel thought, there would be more drive and less resistance, and the administration could do big things.

There was historical precedent to support this attitude.  People still remembered the Hundred Days from March to June, 1933.  Roosevelt had pushed a lot of stuff through Congress and had done so at flank speed.  Things were not as bad now as they had been then, but they sure weren’t good.  The Democrats did not have as large a majority as Roosevelt had had, but it was big enough.  Obama was not as good an orator as Roosevelt had been, but, like Roosevelt, he was a huge improvement over his predecessor.  And, in 1932 and 2008, everyone regarded the election of the new president as an historic event.  Surely, there was oomph and impetus for a new Hundred Days.

It turned out that there wasn’t, not for a Hundred Days, or a Two Hundred Days, or even a Three Hundred Days.  The long slog of reality replaced the quick fix of daydream.  Inevitably, the grueling and bitter process of presenting a case and rounding up votes for Obamacare made the quick fix ever more beguiling.  No dream enchants liberals more than a new Hundred Days, with the progressive vision of moral righteousness triumphant.

The economic crisis of 2008 had not worked. Perhaps another crisis would.  The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, could that be the springboard for passage of climate and energy legislation?  No. BP plugged the well and (obviously Republican) microbes are eating the oil.  Well, how about the Turkish flotilla?  Could that force further Israeli concessions in the long-running peace (actually appeasement) process?  An Arabist administration would love to see that scenario resume.  But, so far, there is only another round of talks, with Israel perversely refusing to surrender.  Okay, so how about the crisis involving illegal immigration?  Most Americans have strong opinions about this.  A little huff and puff and ballyhoo, and this crisis could lead to comprehensive immigration reform, with a lawsuit against Arizona for enforcing natural immigration law.  But alas for the administration, these issues have not led toward a usable crisis, try as it might.

The problem seems to lie in the nature of crisis itself.  It is never enough merely to say things are bad or to call your opponents racists and bigots, as does the American left.  Bad news and insult lose resonance through repetition.  To be useful politically, a crisis must generate real fear and anxiety, which expose an underlying ragged emotional edge.  A politically useable crisis is not a problem in public affairs, such as the national debt, but is a popular emotional response, mainly fear.  Only when people are scared silly can you have a Hundred Days.  Rahm Emanuel was right about the usefulness of a crisis, but wrong about supposing a crisis existed.

One possibility only remains for an administration apparently addicted to governing through exploiting crises.  Do not wait for a crisis to come along.  Create one yourself.  This is the Reichstag Fire syndrome, used by the Nazis on February 27, 1933 to create a crisis so fearful that the National Socialists could acquire untrammeled power.  The current administration has made a thin effort along the lines of the Reichstag syndrome through exploiting the proposed New York Ground Zero mosque project.  But the administration has lacked both fervor and consistency.  It has been both for it (on constitutional grounds) and ambivalent as to its wisdom.  The mosque issue has had only a modest effect.  It has heightened anger and polarization among the populace.  Good news for the administration.  Moslems are now more supportive of President Obama than any other religious group.  Also good.  But, the mosque issue has had a significant boomerang effect.  It has raised distrust, irritation, contempt and, a fretful analysis of the administration’s alleged political attachments.  Sometimes the crisis works against you, particularly when you lack consistency and the opposition’s message resonates with the populace.

In default of something better, the current administration may have to give up on crises and fall back on the wisdom of Warren Harding: You should never let normalcy go to waste.