Ours may be remembered as the era of the Big Sleep. Barack Obama and the Democrats lie comatose at the switch as the federal government continues to swell up like a dead mule in the heat of late July. Air-traffic controllers doze off with airliners circling airports, frantically trying to get landing instructions.
Joe Biden sleeps through the boss’s forgettable speech about the economy, caught on camera with his chin against his chest, happily sawing hickory logs. A man sitting next to him in the photograph is obviously wrestling with a protocol problem: How loud does a veep get to snore before he gets a sharp elbow in the ribs?
Presidents, on the other hand, can’t take refuge in a nap in the attic, where our lovable and slightly dotty uncles live. So when Standard & Poor’s, a most highly regarded authority on Wall Street, downgrades its assessment of the U.S. credit outlook as “negative,” the White House has to do better than to dismiss the assessment as partisan politics.
“I don’t think we should make too much out of that,” says Austen Goolsbee, Mr. Obama’s top economist. “What Standard & Poor’s is doing is making a political judgment, and it is one that we don’t agree with.”
Presidents always have trouble with bad news, and they’ve never figured out what to do with veeps, sleeping or otherwise. John Adams called the vice presidency “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” When the Whigs approached Daniel Webster about running as Zachary Taylor’s running mate in 1848, he declined: “I do not intend to be buried until I am dead.” John Nance Garner, FDR’s first vice president, famously described the job as “not worth a pitcher of warm spit.” Harry S Truman, who had been kept in the dark about everything, including the atomic bomb and how evil Josef Stalin really was, said the only duties a veep has are to “go to weddings and funerals.” Indeed, the only arguments Joe Biden and the missus ever have is at the breakfast table, over who gets the first look at the obituary page.
Thomas Marshall, who was Woodrow Wilson’s vice president and is best known for his observation that “what this country needs is a really good 5-cent cigar,” was fond of recalling the story of two brothers he knew back home in Indiana. “One went away to sea; the other was elected vice president of the United States, and nothing was heard of either one of them again.” That’s not the president’s problem with good ol’ Joe. He is heard from early and often, like a conscientious voter in Chicago.
Good ol’ Joe represents Malaprop City, easily forgiven by the rest of us because so many of us hail from there, too. He famously greeted Chuck Graham, a state senator, at a rally in Missouri with a bluff and hearty: “Stand up, Chuck. Let ‘em see ya.” When Chuck didn’t stand up, the veep insisted again, only to discover that Chuck was sitting in a wheelchair. “Oh, God love ya,” the veep said. “What am I talking about?”
Who knew? Facts often confuse good ol’ Joe. In a campaign interview, he recalled that after the 1929 crash on Wall Street, President Roosevelt went on television to reassure the nation that everything was going to be OK. However, and it was a big however, Herbert Hoover was the president in 1929 and television was only a distant gleam in the eye of its inventors. The politicians were still trying to master radio in 1929 (and FDR famously did, half a decade later).
It doesn’t matter whether Mr. Obama and his sleepy wise men agree with S&P. Like it or not, the highly regarded S&P credit assessment is out there, and when Wall Street talks, a lot of money can walk. Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the Republican majority leader in the House, calls the S&P assessment “a wake-up call” for those who want to raise the U.S. debt limit without “meaningful fiscal reforms that immediately reduce federal spending and stop our nation from digging itself further into debt.”
Once upon a time, a White House could console itself that such jeremiads were only aimed at economists and Washington policy wonks. Ordinary Americans were more interested in baseball, celebrity scandals and the latest politician shot down by the Gaffe Patrol. But the public is fully awake now, with neither appetite nor tolerance for drowsy addicts of the Big Sleep.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.