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Point of View: Political leaders need to begin acting like adults in current country crisis

Jan. 29, 2010

By Thomas L. Friedman
New York Times columnist

Maybe it's just me, but I've found the last few weeks in American politics particularly unnerving. Our economy is still very fragile, yet you would never know that by the way the political class is acting. We're like a patient who just got out of intensive care and is sitting up in bed for the first time when, suddenly, all the doctors and nurses at bedside start bickering. One of them throws a stethoscope across the room; someone else threatens to unplug all the monitors unless the hospital bills are paid by noon; and all the while the patient is thinking: "Are you people crazy? I am just starting to recover. Do you realize how easily I could relapse? Aren't there any adults here?"

Sometimes you wonder: Are we home alone? Obviously, the political and financial elites to whom we give authority often act on the basis of personal interests. But we still have a long way to go to get out of the mess we are in, and if our elites do not behave with a greater sense of the common good we could find our economy doing a double dip with a back flip.

Dov Seidman, the CEO of LRN, which helps companies build ethical cultures, likes to talk about two kinds of values: "situational values" and "sustainable values." Leaders, companies or individuals guided by situational values do whatever the situation will allow, no matter the wider interests of their communities. A banker who writes a mortgage for someone he knows can't make the payments over time is acting on situational values, saying: "I'll be gone when the bill comes due."

People inspired by sustainable values act just the opposite, saying: "I will never be gone. I will always be here. Therefore, I must behave in ways that sustain - my employees, my customers, my suppliers, my environment, my country and my future generations."

Lately, we've seen an explosion of situational thinking. I support the broad proposals President Barack Obama put forth last week to prevent banks from becoming too big to fail and to protect taxpayers from banks that get in trouble by speculating and then expect us to bail them out. But the way the president unveiled his proposals -- "if those folks want a fight, it's a fight I'm ready to have" -- left me feeling as though he was looking for a way to bash the banks right after the Democrats' loss in Massachusetts, in order to score a few cheap political points more than to initiate a serious national discussion about an incredibly complex issue.

Obama is so much better when he takes a heated, knotty issue, like civil rights or banking reform, and talks to Americans as adults. He is so much better at making us smarter than angrier. Going to war with the banks for a quick political sugar high after an electoral loss will just work against him and us. It will spook the banks into lending even less and slow the recovery even more.

That said, part of me can't blame the president. The behavior of some leading Wall Street banks, particularly Goldman Sachs, has been utterly selfish. U.S. taxpayers saved Goldman by saving one of its big counter parties, AIG. By any fair calculation the U.S. Treasury should own a slice of Goldman today. Goldman has been the poster boy for banks behaving by "situational values" -- exploiting whatever the situation, or rules that it helped to write, allowed.

Also, Obama tried to create a bipartisan commission to come up with a plan to reduce the national debt -- a plan that would inflict pain on both parties by cutting some programs and raising some taxes. But the Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, said the GOP would not cooperate with any commission that proposes raising taxes. And some liberal Democrats rejected cutting their favorite programs. Way to take one for the country, guys.

Then let's look at the unions -- hardly paragons of sustainable thinking for the country. We all know they got more than their fair share in the General Motors settlement and in the Obama health care proposals because they could shake down the Democrats in return for votes.

And, finally, don't forget both the Democratic and Republican senators who have decided to get a quick populist boost by turning one of the few adults we have left -- Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke -- into a pinata. No, Bernanke is not blameless for the 2008 crisis. But since then he has helped steer the country back from the brink and kept us out of a depression. He absolutely deserves reappointment.

No doubt, this is a lousy season to be the leader of any institution. We are in the midst of a long period of austerity, where all that most leaders will be able to do is cut, fire and trim. It is so easy to play populism and run against them. But this time is different. When our government is this deeply involved in propping up our economy, and the economy is this fragile, politics as usual will kill us.

We badly need leaders inspired by sustainable values, not situational ones. Without that, we'll just be digging our hole deeper and making the reckoning, when it comes, that much more ferocious.

Thomas L. Friedman won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, his third Pulitzer for The New York Times. He became the paper's foreign-affairs columnist in 1995.