Monday. Chicago O'Hare
I'm in the USA making a report about the first 100 days of the Obama administration, and its impact on the economy. I flew to Chicago O'Hare airport on Easter Sunday and am writing this at the Chicago O'Hare branch of a famous business hotel chain. On this trip I'm going to write about my impressions of how the economy is doing but I have to say this particular impression is too off-scale to have any relevance.
The hotel is nearly empty. The swimming pool is a mess of concrete and do not enter signs. I was the only person in the restaurant and the only person at the bar. I have just breakfasted on froot loops and stale toast ($12.50). Apart from that, I do not know what pays the wages of the largely migrant workforce here. They seem incredibly cheerful amid the 1970s-era mushroom coloured decor, piped jazz and pile carpet gloom.
What difference has Obama made? That's what I asked the barmaid. She told me a classic American dream story: came to Chicago from Morocco. Studied accountancy but has given up halfway through her degree. Went on a student protest against the Iraq war and was surprised to find herself treated like an enemy of the people by SWAT teams. Will never go on a protest again. Thinks Obama has made a difference just because of the mood music he's created. Described Michelle Obama's visit to a North London school in great detail. Irrepressibly optimistic. The economy is bouncing back. Using her hands she demonstrates it's fallen fast but has hit some kind of bounce point, which has reassured people it's not going to go "there" - she indicates the shape of a Depression.
This, as it turns out is the big debating point among US economists - with the NYT's Paul Krugman and the perennially pessimistic Nouriel Roubini both saying basically as follows: the fiscal stimulus is too little, because it's predictated on an over-optimistic reading of employment figures. Meanwhile the bank bailout scheme, currently undergoing stress testing, is built to fail and will shovel large amounts of money from the taxpayers to the banks, leaving them unreformed. Both economists think there is a danger that not only the USA but the global economy will go "there", Krugman suggesting that we are at the 1930 stage of the Depression timeline.
I always wanted to visit Chicago but it turns out that on this trip I will not really be going further than O'Hare. My next stop is Gary, Indiana. The old steel town is famous as a song title in the Robert Preston musical "The Music Man" - though in real life think The Wire with no happy endings.
I've been thinking the Music Man currently a decent metaphor for Obama: in the film Robert Preston's con man makes everybody feel better just by ordering new uniforms and instruments for the band, even though nobody can actually play them and they are not intended to arrive. The magic in the film is, of course, that the con turns out to be real; from somewhere - nobody knows - uniforms, instruments and the full 76 Trombones turn up. The irrepressible chutzpah of the hero makes it happen. This is the ultimate tenor of the barmaid's perspectives on the Presidency: it feels better so it will get better.
I'm off now to pick up Newsnight's "recreational vehicle". Me and my crew are officially becoming trailer trash on this trip - a kind of lumpenproletarian parallel to Ethical Man Does America.