Monday, October 13, 2008

The crisis is redefining our leaders

This from the Financial Times of London: a month and a half ago Gordon Brown looked as if would go up in flames, now he is the rock that not only steadid Britain's economy, but prodded, and gave a role model to, Europe; while McCain flails and Bush drowns, Obama remians calm and presidential.

If Monday’s market rally really does signal a turning point in the global financial crisis, the world will hail an improbable saviour. Step forward Gordon Brown, Britain’s gloomy prime minister. Until the crisis struck, the conventional wisdom was that Mr Brown was a tragic-comic figure: a man who had desperately wanted to be prime minister, but had proved hopelessly unfitted to the task.

Europeans bourses (stock markets for the bitter, uninformed ones) rallied strongly; the Dow Jones average is up 707 points as of 3.30pm. So, yes, thus far the markets are voting with a sigh of relief and a dash of optimism that the authorities have finally braked the nosedive and righted the ship's course (to mix metaphors).

The emergency European summit in Paris over the weekend saw the 15 members of the European single currency area adopt bank rescue plans that look strikingly like the British initiative. British officials, who have often been told that in a big economic crisis they would be tugged along hopelessly in the wake of the eurozone, are enjoying their moment of vindication.

And the US is about to act as well. It seems that the Brown model might well be the American plan as well.

Crises define politicians. The contrasting fortunes of Mr Brown and President George W. Bush illustrate the point. In normal times, Mr Brown often seems indecisive, gloomy and robotic. In normal times, Mr Bush seems chipper, decisive and a regular guy. But, in a crisis, both men’s manners are transformed – one for the better and one for the worse. Mr Brown suddenly looks calm, determined and in control. Mr Bush has an unfortunate tendency to look panicky and out of his depth.

W looks as if he'd rather be at the ranch. His pronouncements are laughable and irrelevant. When it came to posturing, W was ready; but in crises, he stumbles: witness Katrina, and now the financial panic.

The current financial crisis seems to have actually cheered Mr Brown up. When a mobile phone rang during a speech he was giving late last week, the prime minister made a rare spontaneous joke, speculating about whether this was news of yet another collapsing bank. This kind of joke sounds like the height of bad taste. But somehow it worked. Gallows humour becomes Mr Brown. And besides, his audience had some confidence that he had a handle on the situation.

That's a good one. Brown was Chancellor of the Exchequer. In contrast, W was a governor and part owner of a baseball team, neither of which roles did anything to prepare him for the presidency, clearly.

Mr Bush’s presidency may also be defined by his reaction to crises – but in a bad way. In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, he disappeared, albeit on secret service advice. He later recovered and gave some fine speeches. But Mr Bush’s hopelessly out-of-touch performance during hurricane Katrina cemented his reputation for incompetence. “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” – the remark he directed to the hapless head of the federal government’s disaster relief effort – looked like it might be the defining remark of his time in office.

What a putz.

But it now has a close competitor. The president’s reported comment that “this sucker could go down” was the only memorable thing he has said throughout the entire financial crisis. Unfortunately, it made him sound like a Texan on the bridge of the Titanic. Compare and contrast with Roosevelt’s: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

He looks as if he doesn't know what he's doing, and, worse, doesn't much care. Same snide look, same stupid grin. And: what are the preliminary verdicts on the other political actors?

Peer Steinbrück, the German finance minister, wins a special booby prize for premature triumphalism. Suggesting last month that “the crisis originated in the US and is mainly hitting the US” was tempting fate. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has also not covered herself in glory. Appealing for a European response and then announcing unilateral German measures made her look inconsistent – to put it politely. By contrast, Nicolas Sarkozy has done well. “Reassuring” is not a word that generally applies to the hyperactive French president. But Mr Sarkozy has looked energetic and determined.

The Germans, particularly Steinbrück, have come off as selfish. Sarko has acquitted himself very well: he has looked decisive, determined, in control.

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