Sunday, April 5, 2009

Sunday Reading

The Confidence Game — President Obama takes on the challenges facing him, the one thing he has plenty of is confidence.

As he cashiered the head of one of America’s storied automakers last week, President Obama declared that he remained “confident that G.M. can rise again.” Then he flew to London to meet with counterparts to try to turn the world economy around, vowing once again to restore “confidence in the financial markets.”

By the time he got to France, he told a town hall meeting that he was “confident that we can meet any challenge as long as we are together.” For good measure, he repeated the phrase twice more in his opening remarks. And in case the folks back home missed it, Mr. Obama taped a message for broadcast Saturday declaring that “I am confident that we will meet this challenge.”

Confidence is the name of the game for a new president trying to calibrate his message to match the moment, searching for a way to inspire a recession-weary country and convey hope that better times are ahead. It is a tricky balance to strike. If he sounds too gloomy, he could further depress a nation desperate for any sign of progress. If he sounds too optimistic, he risks looking as if he’s trying to pull something over on the nation, a different sort of Confidence Man.

“You don’t want to overlook the misery and not look like you’re in touch with the challenges they’re facing,” said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff. “On the other hand, you’ve got to give them a sense that there’s a light on the horizon that you’re pointing to and it’s visible.”

Mr. Obama finds himself the leader of a nation with depleted confidence in all sorts of institutions of American life, from the banks and auto industry to government and the news media. America’s very place in the world seems in doubt to some, as China and Russia push to create a new international currency to replace the dollar and others challenge the nation’s economic, military and cultural dominance.

This is hardly the first time a president has confronted such a challenge. Franklin D. Roosevelt arguably turned around the mood of a country that appreciated his buoyant style, reassuring fireside chats and certitude that the only thing to fear was “fear itself,” even as the Great Depression raged on for years. Ronald Reagan took over a country following Vietnam and Watergate that suffered what Jimmy Carter had called a “crisis of confidence” and proceeded to emulate Roosevelt with a series of radio addresses and speeches expressing restless faith in the American spirit.

Regardless of how much credit they really deserve, Roosevelt and Reagan, or their legends, certainly have driven successive presidents to focus on their tone, knowing that they will be judged on it. George W. Bush projected steady assurance in the aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But his relentlessly upbeat assessments of the war in Iraq later made him seem disconnected until he eventually acknowledged that the war was going badly and changed his strategy.

The Plane Facts — Following up on this story, the Sun-Sentinel continues to look into the travels of Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp.

Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp says he flew his family on a state plane for a weekend trip to historical St. Augustine in April 2007 so he could attend a federal Small Business Administration event.

Kottkamp said he was on official business, but records obtained by the Sun Sentinel show he had nothing scheduled that weekend. And SBA officials said they had no events during Kottkamp’s visit.

Questions over whether Kottkamp used state aircraft for personal trips are the latest developments in a controversy surrounding Florida’s lieutenant governor, whose extensive use of state planes has sparked scrutiny from lawmakers and ethics complaints.

On another trip over Thanksgiving weekend last year, Kottkamp traveled on a state plane to Tallahassee with one main event on his calendar: the annual grudge match between the University of Florida and Florida State University football teams.

Kottkamp’s public schedule lists no events that weekend. A calendar maintained by his scheduler shows Kottkamp attending pregame events and a “jazz brunch” at a lobbyist’s home the day after the game, before flying home to Fort Myers.

Kottkamp’s wife, Cyndie, accompanied him onboth trips.

State law says aircraft can be used only for “conducting official state business.”

The governor’s office did not answer questions about the purpose of Kottkamp’s trips, saying the lieutenant governor was unavailable.

The Sun Sentinel first reported on Kottkamp’s travel in February, detailing 365 flights on the state’s executive planes, a King Air 350 turboprop and a Cessna Citation jet. The planes are reserved for top officials and legislators at a cost to taxpayers of $3.5 million a year.

Most of Kottkamp’s flights were to get him back and forth between Fort Myers and Tallahassee, where he owns a second home.

After media reports, the lieutenant governor reimbursed the state $10,400 for flights his wife and young son took on those planes and a Florida Highway Patrol aircraft, which he also uses.

Kottkamp has defended his air travel, including the flight on the FHP plane to St. Augustine.

“I can tell you that not everything I do is on the calendar, that’s for certain,” Kottkamp told reporters when asked about that trip. “I think the issue there was a Small Business Administration event.”

But officials in the governor’s office said they have no record of an SBA event. And the day before the trip, Kottkamp’s scheduler distributed an internal e-mail listing his agenda for that weekend as all clear, marked as “personal days” in neighboring Ponte Vedra.

Officials at the SBA’s Jacksonville office, which serves north and central Florida, said they had no events scheduled in the area that weekend.

“I found our archive calendars from that time — there’s nothing on there,” said spokeswoman Lola Naylor. “It would’ve been a big enough event that it would’ve been on our calendar.”

In a brief interview Thursday, Kottkamp said he had no more details. Asked about the nature of his official business, he responded, “I don’t know.”

Frank Rich — Double-Header.

EVEN among pitchfork-bearing populists, there was scant satisfaction when the White House sent the C.E.O. of General Motors to the guillotine.

Sure, Rick Wagoner deserved his fate. He did too little too late to save an iconic American institution from devolving into a government charity case. He embraced the Hummer. G.M.’s share price fell from above $70 to under $3 on his watch. Yet few disputed the judgment of the Michigan governor, Jennifer Granholm, that Wagoner was a “sacrificial lamb,” a symbolic concession to public rage ordered by a president who had to look tough after being blindsided by the A.I.G. bonuses. Detroit’s chief executive had to be beheaded so that the masters of the universe at the top of Wall Street’s bailed-out behemoths might survive.

On this point even the left and the right could agree. The union leader Andy Stern publicly wondered why the administration didn’t also dethrone Ken Lewis of Bank of America. Thaddeus McCotter, a conservative Republican congressman from suburban Detroit, asked, “When will the Wall Street C.E.O.’s receiving TARP funds summon the honor to resign? Will this White House ever bother to raise the issue?”

When reporters did raise the issue of a double standard to the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, they got double talk: “I don’t have anything specific on Bank of America.”

But even as that unanswered question hangs in the air, a more revealing inquiry might be this: Why is there any sympathy whatsoever for a Detroit C.E.O. who helped wreck his company, ruined investors and cost thousands of hard-working underlings their jobs, when there is no mercy for those who did the same on Wall Street? Might we, too, have a double standard? Could we still be in denial of the reality that greed and irresponsibility were not an exclusive Wall Street franchise during our national bender?

Doonesbury — Phoning it in.