What the country needs right now is a good hedgehog.
Back in 1953, British philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously laid out two opposing styles of leadership -- hedgehogs and foxes -- taking his cue from a line in an ancient Greek poem by Archilochus: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."
According to Berlin, the fox will "pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way." In contrast, the hedgehog offers an "unchanging, all embracing... unitary inner vision."
Right now, with the country in crisis mode, the American people are longing for a hedgehog at the helm -- even a fanatical, delusional hedgehog like those currently leading the Republican Party. Their "unchanging, all embracing" one big idea will absolutely take the country in the wrong direction, but the unequivocal way they are putting it forward has an appeal to a population that understands -- consciously or unconsciously -- that our problems are too big to be solved by a fox.
People sense that our problems can't be solved by spinning, triangulating, slicing and dicing, and tinkering at the edges. They want something big to be done, but right now only one side is responding to that desire. And unless it's countered, the people might take the Republicans up on it.
We know that President Obama can be a hedgehog -- after all, that's how he won in 2008. But since taking office, he's largely governed as a fox. There is a world of difference between having a vision and adopting the other side's vision and trying to mitigate the damage from it. What's needed isn't a fox-like plan to lessen the damage from the Republicans' destructive economic vision. What's needed is an alternative vision.
And though it obviously would have been better to have offered an alternate vision before this preventable economic misery was allowed to spread so far, it's never too late. And it appears that there are those in the White House who are arguing for a hedgehoggian approach.
As Binyamin Appelbaum and Helene Cooper report in The New York Times, the White House is "considering whether to adopt a more combative approach on economic issues, seeking to highlight substantive differences with Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail rather than continuing to pursue elusive compromises."
Sadly, the foxes in the White House seem to be winning. According to The Times, David Plouffe and chief of staff Bill Daley want to follow a "pragmatic strategy" based on "ideas that can pass Congress, even if they may not have much economic impact." The administration, we're told, has "increasingly concluded that the best thing Mr. Obama can do for the economy may be winning a second term, with a mandate to advance his ideas on deficit reduction, entitlement changes, housing policy and other issues."
This is a profound misreading of the country's mood. "Playing it safe is not going to cut it," said Christina Romer, Obama's former head of the Council of Economic Advisers. "Not proposing anything bold and not trying to do something to definitively deal with our problems would mean that we're going to have another year and a half like the last year and a half -- and then it's awfully hard to get re-elected."
Or, as Calculated Risk put it, referring to the fact that "tax incentives" were the big idea being put forth by the bolder side inside the White House, "it sounds like the debate is between doing nothing and doing very little."
And doing very little can be very dangerous. People aren't gravitating toward the GOP message because of its economic logic, but because it's big and bold. In fact, that message has continued to resonate even as it has become increasingly nonsensical.
At the same time the White House is adopting the GOP message that debt reduction is the path to a good economy -- instead of the other way around -- growing numbers on the Republican side, including Reagan economic adviser Martin Feldstein and George W. Bush's Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, are calling it out as risky and wrong-headed.
As PIMCO's Bill Gross put it in The Washington Post: "An anti-Keynesian, budget-balancing immediacy imparts a constrictive noose around whatever demand remains alive and kicking. Washington hassles over debt ceilings instead of job creation in the mistaken belief that a balanced budget will produce a balanced economy. It will not."
Reinforcing the idea that this is a time for boldness and not small fixes is the fact that discontent with economic austerity is worldwide. "From Athens to Barcelona, European town squares are being taken over by young people railing against unemployment and the injustice of yawning income gaps," wrote Tom Friedman, "while the angry Tea Party emerges from nowhere and sets American politics on its head."
Friedman summarizes what these young people want with one of the slogans from the recent protests in Israel: "We are fighting for an accessible future." A future that, as Friedman notes, is increasingly "out of their grasp."
Though there are, of course, many factors that led to the riots in the UK, the closing off of that future is certainly one of them. David Goodhart, founder of Prospect Magazine, connected the dots on Fareed Zakaria's CNN show: "We have a lot of deep problems in our inner cities. The economic boom over the last 10 or 15 years has partly covered that up... This idea that you cannot make it in straight society, so violent transgression is really the only thing to do."
In other words, when the future is not accessible -- when you can't find a job, can't pay your bills, can't take on the responsibilities of adult life -- you are more likely to feel that you have no stake in society and turn against it.
In times of deep crisis like our own, it's very hard for foxes to prevail over hedgehogs -- even dangerously wrong-headed ones. But right now there are no other hedgehogs in the picture.
P.S. Last week, I told you about "Dispatches from the Changing American Dream," our new project in collaboration with Patch devoted to telling stories from all across the country both of struggle and of creativity and compassion during these hard times. I'm happy to now direct you to two of the first "Dispatches": this piece, from the Evanston Patch, tells the two-year unemployment odyssey of Andrea Katz, 55, who went from making $100,000 a year to $9.50 an hour, and how her passion for baking finally helped her turn things around, while this story from the Tredyffrin-Easttown Patch focuses on John Smith, who rebounded from being laid off from his corporate accounting job by opening a restaurant and has never been happier.