What really unites the United States and Japan in their current doldrums?
- What truly unites the United States and Japan is that the electorate still puts a disproportionate amount of faith in their leaders to turn things around quickly.
- Nobody in Europe expects such abilities of their leaders — and that should be seen as a sign of political maturity, not resignation or a profound economic or cultural malaise.
- If societies want to daydream about past glory, then political leaders have practically no chance.
- The real thing expressed in those U.S. and Japanese polls is voters' profound impatience for their newly elected political leaders to turn things around.
Both Obama and Hatoyama have an inner elegance that is meant to portray an ability to steer their respective nations' ship above the fray of day-to-day politics.
That serenity was warmly embraced by voters in both countries who liked the appeal of a fresh start — and handed the two leaders rather stunning victories not seen in decades in either country.
But now, a year into the new mandate in the U.S. case and just four months in Japan's case, the beauty is wearing off. Both leaders have had to contend with equally stunning declines in their poll data.
While he started his presidency with approval ratings in the 75% range, at the end of 2009 Mr. Obama had an approval rating of 47% — lower than that of every U.S. president of the last 50 years at the same point in their presidencies. Similarly, Mr. Hatoyama’s approval ratings have fallen drastically in the past three months from above 80% to below 50%.
What could be the reason for this sudden decline?
There has been plenty of commentary ever since the onset of the financial crisis that, looking ahead, the United States needed to guard against a Japanese-style lost decade.
Most of those who made this case used the comparison to disparage any attempts to restimulate the U.S. economy by virtue of public investment. Japan built plenty of bridges to nowhere — and its economy is still in the doldrums, the argument goes.
Others, such as Ian Bremmer and Nouriel Roubini (see their Wall Street Journal article here), came up with a different twist: Mr. Hatoyama better embrace Mr. Obama's quick turn away from pseudo-revolutionary and toward the political center (witness U.S. healthcare reform) — lest he be left out in the political cold as some kind of leftie extremist.
It is hard to fathom any mainstream Japanese politician as a real leftie — and especially not one of Mr. Hatoyama's provenance, with a mother who is the heiress to one of Japan's bigger industrial fortunes, that of the Bridgestone tire dynasty. Unlike Al Gore, he truly was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.
In truth, much of the current U.S. criticism of the new Japanese prime minister stems from the fact that he has had the courage of his convictions in one critical regard — being cool to doing business-as-usual with regard to U.S. troops stationed in Okinawa. And that has Washington — from the Democratic camp to the Republican one — very nervous.
The real question, however, concerns not the future of mutual security arrangements, but the fate of the two national economies — and the role of their leaders in bringing about an improvement. Yes, there are real questions about the ability of Japan's political leaders to turn the curve — despite decades of trying.
And yes, the same is true in the case of the U.S. economy, where even a pronounced economic conservative such as Harvard's Martin Feldstein, who used to serve as Ronald Reagan's Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, is implicitly arguing for more stimulus programs for 2010.
For the United States not to shrug off an economic downturn quite easily is an uncommon experience. But then, we are dealing with an economic crisis comparable in many respects to the Great Depression.
The only thing we know under such circumstances is that recovery will take time — and that a quick return to business-as-usual might just trigger the next crisis, whether via another asset bubble or what have you.
Perhaps the real thing expressed in those U.S. and Japanese polls is voters’ profound impatience for their newly elected political leaders to turn things around.
Viewed in that light, their "decline" in the polls reflects an ill-placed belief in the miracle-like turn-around powers of political leaders at the helm of nations.
Nobody in Europe expects such abilities of their leaders — and that should be seen as a sign of political maturity, not resignation or a profound economic or cultural malaise.
Modern economies are hyper-complex entities — and turning them around is, at best, an iffy undertaking. Plus, today's political leaders are but a reflection of society at large. If society as a whole is ready for reform, politicians have a fighting chance to turn things around.
If societies conversely want to daydream about past glory — and be mad, real mad that the glory days aren't (yet) here again — then political leaders have practically no chance.
What truly unites the United States and Japan therefore is not that they have some radicals as political leaders. Rather, it is that the electorate still puts a disproportionate amount of faith in their leaders to turn things around quickly.
Voting in "fresh blood" changes little on the ground. To paraphrase Louis XIV, "l'etat c'est moi." Yes, we the people ultimately are the state, we the people are the government.
If we're ready for change, for cutbacks in one place to invest in another, for reforms of our overly staid ways, then reform is possible.
But believing that the election of a new royal to the highest political office in the land changes things is naïve at best. It is essentially feudalist — and betrays a profound misunderstanding of the true forces (and challenges) of democracy.
We live in a world where "they" (the politicians) can't really fix things anymore. Citizens of the globe, beware: It is very much a do-it-yourself world.