Sunday, January 31, 2010

Obama's inexperience, arrogance endanger country

Published in The Tennessean, January 31, 2010

Obama's inexperience, arrogance endanger country

by Richard J. Grant

In the early 1990s, while working in South Africa, I met Nelson Mandela for the first time. He was gray and wizened, but distinguished, bright-eyed, and energetic. I liked him.

But then he went on stage and gave a speech. Whatever hope I had been given by the solid nature of the man that I had just met soon evaporated. His words betrayed the fact that he still lacked the understanding needed to be leader of a prosperous country. He spoke of nationalization and redistribution as if they were natural and to be expected.

Everyone knew that Mandela had been a socialist and that many of his colleagues and supporters were still card-carrying Communists. But it had been barely two years since the Berlin Wall had come down, and the faith of most socialists had been severely shaken. It was that event that had opened the way to the unbanning of the ANC and to Mandela's release in February 1990.

The world had just witnessed a decade of renewal in the West under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan; and the Soviet empire was in its last days. Freedom and confidence were spreading around the world.

When Mandela later spoke to the World Economic Forum in Davos, his speech was little changed from the one that I had witnessed. But his audience was very different and uninhibited in its derisive reaction to his naïve socialistic pronouncements.

There is no doubt that Mandela got the message. I suspect that his advisers were told in no uncertain terms that such a reaction must never again occur. From that point onward, Mandela's public words more closely matched the thinking needed for national reconciliation and the leadership role that he was destined to fulfill.

In that respect, Mandela found himself at a crossroad in history and chose his direction. Had he gone in another direction, the consequences would have been far less peaceful and far less prosperous. With the examples of Thatcher and Reagan before him, he made the connection between his responsibility and the realities that he faced. He chose to become the president of South Africa, not the president of a soon-to-fail state.

Almost 20 years later, President Barack Obama was sworn into office with comforts and advantages that Mandela had never known. But clearly Mandela had something that Obama lacks. Perhaps it was 30 more years of life experience. The important thing was that Mandela had it before he became president.

President Obama likes to remind everyone that he inherited his troubles. Presidents Mandela and Reagan could each make the same claim. But beyond this point the stories become very different. Whereas Mandela and Reagan chose policies that promoted cooperation between people, the first year of the Obama administration has been one of arrogance, division, and polarization. Obama's approach to economic policy has resulted in nationalization and redistribution, the ultimate consequence of which is economic stagnation and social friction.

President Obama seems determined to retrieve socialism from the ash heap of history. He apparently lacks the economic education to see that his policies have caused the worst of his inheritance to persist. Instead of learning from President Reagan and leading us out of recession by reducing the burden of government upon us, he has done the opposite.

It is no accident that he is falling in the polls and that his party has suffered an embarrassing reversal in Massachusetts. In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama showed no sign of having learned anything about either economics or leadership. As if oblivious to the flaws in his plan, he seemed to be saying, "Damn the realities, full speed ahead."

If his first year in office is indicative of what is to come, then a second term would be more than Americans could bear. Perhaps he should go get some experience first – and come back in 30 years.

Richard J. Grant is a professor of finance and economics at Lipscomb University and a scholar at the Tennessee Center for Policy Research. His column appears on Sundays. E-mail:

Copyright © Richard J Grant 2010