During a Democratic fundraiser at the Warner Theatre near the White House last Thursday night, the president offered one of his periodic—and true—assessments of the vicissitudes of the culture of the capital. "I know that in Washington sometimes it's easy to get caught up in the day-to-day cable chatter, and be distracted by the petty and the trivial, and everybody is keeping score—are they up, are they down?" Obama said. "You know, one day I'm a genius; one day I'm a bum. Every day there's a new winner, a new loser."
Complaints about the pettiness of politics are perennial. "You might as well turn the current of the Niagara with a ladies' fan as to prevent scheming and intrigue at Washington," said Martin Van Buren, who reveled in scheming and intrigue; in his first Inaugural Address, Bill Clinton—another master of the game—said: "This beautiful capital, like every capital since the dawn of civilization, is often a place of intrigue and calculation. Powerful people maneuver for position and worry endlessly about who is in and who is out, who is up and who is down, forgetting those people whose toil and sweat sends us here and pays our way."
All criticism is not created equal, though, and—not to be too grand about it—democracy depends on the willingness of those in power to consider dissenting views. Critics, too, bear much responsibility if they wish to be taken seriously. They must recognize that life in the arena differs from life, say, in academia or in newsrooms. The complexities and contradictions of governing can be overwhelming, and offering opinions is a great deal easier than winning votes, building coalitions and substantively shaping the life of the nation.
Every once in a while, though, a critic emerges who is more than a chatterer—a critic with credibility whose views seem more than a little plausible and who manages to rankle those in power in more than passing ways. As the debate over the rescue of the financial system—the crucial step toward stabilizing the economy and returning the country to prosperity—unfolds, the man on our cover this week, Paul Krugman of The New York Times, has emerged as the kind of critic who, as Evan Thomas writes, appears disturbingly close to the mark when he expresses his "despair" over the administration's bailout plan.
The administration, naturally, does not share Krugman's view, and Michael Hirsh contributes a piece on how Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner appears to have settled into office; in interviews with NEWSWEEK, David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel and Ben Bernanke all testified to Geithner's abilities.
But there is little doubt that Krugman—Nobel laureate and Princeton professor—has become the voice of the loyal opposition. What is striking about this development is that Obama's most thoughtful critic is taking on the president from the left at a time when, as Jonathan Alter notes, so many others are reflexively arguing that the administration is trying too much too soon. A devoted liberal, Krugman hungers for what he calls "a new New Deal," and he prides himself on his status as an outsider. (He is as much of an outsider as a Nobel laureate from Princeton with a column in the Times can be.)
Is Krugman right? Is the Obama administration too beholden to Wall Street and to the status quo, trying to save a system that is beyond salvation? Does Obama have—despite the brayings of the right—too much faith in the markets at a time when prudence suggests that they cannot rescue themselves? We do not know yet, and will not for a while to come. But as Evan—hardly a rabble-rousing lefty—writes, a lot of people have a "creeping feeling" that the Cassandra from Princeton may just be right. After all, the original Cassandra was.