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Jamie Malanowski Headshot

Command and Control?

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Maybe I missed it, but where was the Fireside Chat?

Eight days after his swearing-in, Franklin Roosevelt went on the radio for the first of the so-called fireside chats. He had declared a bank holiday, and he told people why. He explained why bank runs were so damaging, how they worsened the crisis. And he told people what steps his administration was going to take.

That little chat helped FDR enormously. It showed people that he had command of the problem, and was taking control of the situation.

Obama thus far has not demonstrated such command and control. He's been nicked up by the mistakes he made with his appointments. He's felt obliged to say that he screwed up, which, while refreshing, is not an admission we want to hear from our president with any frequency. And he's really taken a curious role with this stimulus bill. By allowing the House Democrats to write it, by allowing the Republican opposition to define it, by devoting so much attention on whether or not the bill would have bipartisan support, the president has taken what should be his first signature piece of legislation, and somehow failed to put his stamp on it. And at a time when the country is virtually pleading with him to exert command and control, he has yielded that role to congressional partisans that the public doesn't quite know and almost certainly doesn't trust.

Imagine if he had sat down in front of a national television audience and said, in effect, here's where we are; here's what we have to do; here's what the elements of the bill will accomplish; and here is where what we will do next. Doubtless the debate in Congress would have been very different.

Soon the Treasury Department is going to announce its plans for addressing the financial crisis. Already critics are denouncing this as another trip to the bailout well, a follow-up to the TARP plan already tarnished by that plan's shortcomings. Obama needs to take charge of his plans before they drift into a cloud of uncertainty. He needs to show his command of the problem. He needs to take control of the situation.