It’s a question commonly asked by schoolchildren: What is the President’s most important job? The answer plainly is not being commander-in-chief of the military or appointing a cabinet or negotiating a budget.
Rather, the answer is that any President has the paramount task of making other Americans feel confident and optimistic about the nation, in effect to be psychologist-in-chief.
America’s decline in world regard since the presidency of Bill Clinton is probably largely because George W. Bush and Barack Obama have been singularly inept at this most important task. Each in his own way has managed to make Americans feel pessimistic about their country and its future place in the world. That phenomenon has been measured in myriad polls.
So it has also been in California, where a succession of governors from the1940s through the ‘70s conveyed optimism and a sense of never-ending expansion of the state’s human horizons.
That sense lasted through the tenures of Earl Warren, Goodwin Knight, Pat Brown, Ronald Reagan and, to some extent, the first incarnation of Jerry Brown, who acquired the sobriquet Gov. Moonbeam because he wanted California’s vision and dreams to extend into outer space – a mind-bending concept at the time.
Now it’s up to Brown to try to restore that positivity, not an easy matter when he’s presided over major cuts in vital public programs and services, with more to come.
His task looks even tougher when you consider how poorly it was done by the four governors who served between his terms, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson and Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. None conveyed a sense of vision for the future while they watched California’s once-exemplary infrastructure of roads, bridges, aqueducts, reservoirs, pipelines and public buildings begin to decay without doing much about it.
The crowning achievement of Deukmejian’s tenure was “workfare,” the program requiring welfare recipients to perform some work when they didn’t have child care obligations. This might have been constructive, but was hardly inspirational.
Wilson is best remembered for two things: His anti-illegal immigrant “They Keep Coming” campaign commercials and his support for electricity deregulation, whose consequences still reverberate in power rates among the highest anywhere.
Davis gave public employee unions almost carte blanche, okaying pay and pension increases that are a key factor in today’s state and local budget problems. Under him, there was also a culture of corruption; Davis often seemed to make public policy decisions as a direct consequence of campaign donations.
And Schwarzenegger put the state more deeply in debt than ever, backing or running bond issues that accomplished little or nothing in the long term other than to guarantee that fully 8 percent of future budgets would have to go toward paying back debts.
Little of that was going to further the California Dream of endless possibilities in exchange for good new ideas and hard work.
Now it’s up to Brown to reverse the tide of skepticism and pessimism about California’s future. It doesn’t really matter that many problems which afflicted this state first, from excessive public employee pensions to massive numbers of home foreclosures, now trouble most other states, too.
Brown has made a start in the right direction by trying to push new types of industrial development compatible with California’s justifiably high environmental standards and by making tough budget decisions.
But it now seems inevitable that next year will bring deeper budget cuts than even those which have already decimated health care for the poor, caused cancellation or closure of school amenities from buses to nurses and libraries, closed dozens of state parks and raised tuition at public colleges and universities by about 20 percent in just one year.
Yet, Brown’s obligation – the task he willingly took on when he opted to become governor again – is to revive the optimism of both Californians and outsiders about this state and its future.
Making a few unpleasant choices aimed at ending perpetual budget deficits may be a start in that direction, but it’s plainly not enough. Brown’s job in the second and third years of his return to office will be to inspire, not to instill dread of the near future.
His televised state of the state speech early next month would be a good place to start. He might also do a series of radio and television “fireside chats” a la Franklin D. Roosevelt. But he’s got to do something positive, and soon, or risk joining the list of recent governors whom history has already judged failures.