Rupert Cornwell: Tonight it's Super Bowl. Tomorrow it's back to the bailout

Out of America: For one evening only, the United States can forget its problems as the National Football League play-offs reach a climax. But not even this great institution is recession-proof
Click to follow
The Independent Online

For a little while this evening, sporting escapism will grip this unhappy land, and partisanship will be not so much legitimate as obligatory – even from a new leader who spends his time telling us we must put aside our differences in this hour of economic emergency.

Thus did Barack Obama last week come out unequivocally for the Pittsburgh Steelers over the Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl, the National Football League's annual championship game that has become a national institution, a linchpin of America's culture of bread and circuses.

His choice was no surprise. Obama, the one-time Chicago community organiser, is the first President for goodness knows how long with a genuine big-city background. So what is more natural than his decision to go for urban rustbelt over suburban sunbelt – especially when the Steelers' head coach is black and the team's owner was an important early Obama supporter in the election campaign?

But the escapism will be short-lived. Come tomorrow morning, markets will reopen and reality will return: more dismal economic indicators, more gigantic corporate and bank losses, and thousands, maybe tens of thousands, more lost jobs. Every day, the news gets more depressing. Congress will this month pass a record stimulus package worth $820bn (£562bn) or more, while the Treasury is putting together a new bank rescue plan with numbers that may run into the trillions – much of it money that is supposed one day to be paid back.

In truth, these 13-digit figures are meaningless. To update the dictum of the late Lloyd Bentsen, erstwhile Texas senator and Treasury Secretary, "a trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money". All that is clear is that no one knows what will do the trick. As that unlamented former Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld might put it, we are in a scary new world, not even of known unknowns, but unknown unknowns.

Sad to say, even the Super Bowl has been touched by the malaise. Yes, the headline cost of the 30-second ads that many watch more closely than the game itself is an all-time record $3m, or $100,000 per second. The usual suspects are forking out: Anheuser- Busch of Budweiser fame, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, to name just three. But those deals were finalised many months ago, when the recession was still expected to be shallow and short. NBC, the network broadcasting the event, now admits it has recently been getting somewhat less for these spots – and that as of the middle of last week, three or four were still unsold.

In another sign of America's straightened circumstances, Cash4Gold, a company that pays instant cash for personal jewellery, gold and other valuables, has bought a Super Bowl spot for the first time. On the one hand, you might think, nothing better demonstrates a company's rude health to a jittery stock market than its ability to stump up $3m for a frothy ad in a football game. On the other, frivolous extravagance is frowned upon these days. The Bud ads this time are said to be comforting, rather than the brash and jokey tone of previous Super Bowls.

Be that as it may, Obama already has found the right note, out in the real world. His first fortnight in office has produced foreign policy pointers that in normal times would be making huge headlines – the decision to give his first TV interview to al-Arabiya, intriguing signs of US movement on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, even some warmer language from Tehran.

But for the 44th President, as for the rest of us, the economy is the only game in town. His approach has been not so much cosy and comforting as cool, composed and, above all, truthful. From day one he made no bones that this recession was the worst since the Second World War; "a continuing disaster", he declared upon learning that the economy had shrunk by an annual 3.8 per cent in the last quarter of 2008, the sharpest such contraction in a generation. He has also voiced the national anger at Wall Street's "shameful" behaviour in paying staff lavish bonuses, even after taxpayers had coughed up billions to save some of its most famous financial houses.

Indeed, Obama has thus far handled the crisis about as well as humanly possible. The one blemish was his failure to persuade at least a few House Republicans to move beyond "politics as usual", and back the stimulus package. Alas, like the old Bourbon kings of France, they learn nothing and forget nothing – failing to realise that Reagan/Bush laissez-faire policies have been utterly discredited, and still insisting that there's not a problem on earth that can't be solved by a cut in the capital gains tax.

In purely tactical terms, the defiance makes political sense. The party – which has just elected its first black national chairman, Michael Steele – has shown it is disciplined and united, notwithstanding the battering it took at the last two elections. And, of course, if even the Obama stimulus and the new bank rescue plan don't save the day, Republicans will be able to shout a thunderous "I told you so!" But in the end it does not matter.

In the House last week, Republicans could indulge the luxury of opposition, safe in the knowledge that the measure would pass anyhow. When the Senate discusses its own version of the stimulus this week, Democrats almost certainly will manage to peel off one or two Republicans, and secure a filibuster-proof majority of 60. When an agreed measure returns to the House for final approval, it's a fair bet some Republicans will cross the aisle and support it.

But that is for later. Tonight, in a million Super Bowl parties, Americans can forget about the real world for a few hours. And if they're hopelessly split about who to support, it doesn't matter one whit.