Why Can't John McCain Multitask?

For years we Americans focused obsessively on the "war on terror." Now it's financial Armageddon. When are we going to master the art of multitasking?

Barack Obama said a sensible thing the other day when John McCain announced he was suspending his presidential campaign and flying back to Washington to help secure a giant bailout of America's financial system. Never mind that McCain seemed to have no particular ideas about how to do that—the early evidence is that he might have encouraged the GOP caucus in stalling the $700 billion deal—and that he seemed content to garner his photo op with George W. Bush at the White House. This was the second time the Republican candidate has declared he was dropping everything to focus on one problem (the first was Hurricane Gustave). Obama reasonably responded that he himself would stay on the stump. He explained his decision by remarking: "It is going to be part of the president's job to deal with more than one thing at once."

Thank you, Barack Obama. Though in truth, the Illinois senator was being far too generous (he's really got to stop being so polite). It's not going to be the American president's job; it is his job and has been for decades. It's just that it's been so long since we've actually seen a president perform this job as he should. We seem to have forgotten that the responsibility of the person in the Oval Office is to oversee, day by day, a vast, multidimensional international system, one in which economic, security and social problems are all intertwined and must be balanced against each other. It is a mind-bogglingly complex job, the hardest task in the world. It is, in fact, much more challenging than it was even during the cold war, a period defined by an overarching bipolar conflict. And yet we have endured seven and a half years of an administration that has sought to turn this multidimensional world into "Flatland," to invoke the classic mathematical satire by Edward Abbott, which imagined a world of just two dimensions rather than three.

For too long, Bush has focused monomaniacally on getting his five-year-long Iraq folly right. In Washington, Democrats and Republicans alike have followed right along. Everything—Bush's legacy, our nation's future, the world—seemed to depend somehow on Iraq. We in the media and blogosphere were equally obsessed. America plowed a trillion dollars into that country (not to mention countless lives and limbs), all the while largely ignoring the fact that we have loaded our economy with unmanageable debt and allowed our financial system to run amok with no oversight or regulation. During this terror-obsessed period we have heard, again and again, that the spread of democracy will be a panacea for all our problems.

Now suddenly it's the Big Bailout that will save us, and the world as well, to the point where the critical foreign-policy debate that McCain and Obama have scheduled for Friday night—at which Iraq, among other things, will be addressed—was at one time in danger of being canceled. We have become a nation that seems capable of addressing only one issue at a time. September 11 made the fear of terrorism a template for a whole new approach to the world, to our relations with other nations, and to our own Constitution and the separation of powers. Now the Wall Street financial crisis has made us forget everything else: terror, Iraq, Iran's runaway nuclear program, and the fact that North Korea is now intent on rebuilding its reactor, among a hundred other problems.

We have become a nation of flatlanders.

The best evidence for this, perhaps, is the phenomenon of Sarah Palin, a born-and-bred flatlander. Palin, a woman who seems to have handled no more than a handful of major public-policy issues in her career—mainly oil, gas and a local sports complex—is now declaring with a straight face that she feels "ready" to be a global leader, and that she didn't "blink" when asked to serve. Is there anyone who can honestly conclude, upon listening to Palin's hesitant beauty-pageant bromides in her interviews with ABC's Charlie Gibson and CBS's Katie Couric, that her understanding of the key issues on the president's plate runs more than a millimeter deep?

Not surprisingly, the Palin backlash has begun. Judging from the polls, people are realizing that it may not be prudent, after all, to have a "hockey mom" a heartbeat away from the presidency of the lone superpower. But the fact that Palin has come as close as she has to the Oval Office is only an illustration of the real problem. And it's not as if Obama, despite his keen intelligence, necessarily gets a pass either. True, he has laid out a very nuanced and subtle vision of foreign policy. But until his campaign, he's never run an organization bigger than the Harvard Law Review or his Senate office.

When are we Americans going to realize just how high the bar must be in selecting the president and our senior officials? That we have an entire global system to manage, and it is a job that requires real credentials—years and perhaps decades of addressing the multitudinous challenges of the global system, as opposed to getting a gander at Russia across the Bering Strait? Not soon, judging from the debate over the bailouts of giant institutions like Freddie, Fannie and AIG. The smartest people on Wall Street and in Washington know that the real targets of these bailouts are not the U.S. investment banks and insurance companies, and the intended beneficiary is not the U.S. financial system per se. They are the foreign funds, the "sovereign wealth funds," that keep America's financial system afloat by giving us the money fixes that allow us to continue our rampant consumerism at zero savings rates. Unless these funds get reassurance, the great game is over. So is our long period of growth and power.

So let's have a brief reality check, in the middle of this season of political ridiculosity. In the wake of the Wall Street disaster, America's economy is in the process of "de-leveraging"—shrinking in borrowing power and thereby reducing its impact around the world as foreign funds pull their investments from dollars or redirect them into euros or "baskets" of several currencies. Not least because as European and Asian financiers and economic officials come to learn the truth about the subprime debacle, they've become leery about ever trusting Wall Street's or Washington's advice again. Note that, in contrast to a year ago, no big foreign banks are stepping up to save Wall Street. Why should they? Dubai, for example, has seen its stake in Citigroup drop by 30 percent. "What the disaster in Iraq did to U.S. prestige in foreign policy, this disaster has done to America's stature in the global economy," says Angel Ubide, a Spanish economist based in Washington. "You will have to go stand in a corner for a while after this."

That's because the foreigners know we let this happen, that we did it to ourselves and to them, because an administration full of flatlanders couldn't pay attention to more than one problem at once. For years key figures in the economics world warned the Bush administration and the Federal Reserve that subprime lending was out of control. Nothing was done, with most regulatory agencies, and the Fed itself, in the grip of free-market ideologues. The administration was too focused on Iraq and the "Axis of Evil." Even Hank Paulson was spending a lot of his time ratcheting up economic pressure on Iran. It's time for American presidents to start multitasking again. Unless we begin to put really smart, versatile, knowledgeable people in positions of power in Washington, we have no business remaining a superpower.

Why Can't John McCain Multitask? | News