Streetwise Professor

March 16, 2011

“Present” Would Be an Improvement–Or Would It?

Filed under: Economics,History,Politics — The Professor @ 2:42 am

In the aftermath of 9-11, Bill Clinton lamented that he had been denied the chance to achieve greatness because he had presided over the benign nineties.  Barack Obama cannot make the same complaint.  He has a cornucopia of existential and near-existential crises to choose from.  A budget crisis.  A still shaky US and international economy and financial system.  The Middle East on fire from Tripoli to, most worrisomely, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia (with Iran’s malign influence stoking the confrontation to an unknown extent).  The Japanese catastrophe.

But Obama is curiously–but obviously–detached from it all.  On Japan: “unshakeable (bad choice of words there) bond, blah, blah, blah. . . . FORE!”  On Libya: while Obama talks about the noose tightening on Khaddafy, in reality, Khaddafy is tightening the noose on the rebels–and that expression is likely to transform from a metaphorical description to a literal one within days.  On Bahrain and Saudi Arabia: timorous tut-tutting and fretting, mainly from lower levels within the administration.  In all of these events, a haste to defer to others, most notably international organizations.  But even when such organizations (such as the Arab League) call for action, the administration finds reason to demur.  On the budget, even Democrats in Congress have remarked upon–and criticized–Obama’s disengagement: newly elected WVA Senator Manchin said Obama had been “missing in action.”

But it’s not as if dairies are going to start to put Obama’s picture on milk cartons: he’s been doing things.  Like golfing.  Like preparing his NCAA hoops bracket.  Like fixing “No Child Left Behind” (is the subtext there “Bush screwed up everything, even when he had Ted Kennedy helping him”?).

Some have advanced the analogy between Obama and Eisenhower, who was widely ridiculed for his golf-heavy schedule and seeming detachment.   But, as historian Paul Johnson noted years ago, in fact Eisenhower was an active–and Machiavellian–leader behind the scenes.  Perhaps a generation from now (Johnson wrote a little more than a generation after Eisenhower’s presidency) historians will uncover evidence that Obama is similarly active behind the scenes, pulling strings.  But there is reason to doubt.  Prior to his presidency, Eisenhower had been a military commander responsible for the most complex and sprawling military campaign in history; his primary difficulty was managing a complex alliance beset by strong personalities and conflicting interests while maintaining the public image of agreement, coordination, and comity.  In contrast, Obama’s preparation for the presidency, such as it was, was as a state legislator and junior senator, earning in both places a reputation as someone unwilling to take stands on difficult issues while having absolutely no responsibility to manage or lead anything.  Prior to assuming the presidency, Eisenhower had more than a decade of executive experience under the most trying circumstances: voting “present” was never an option.  Obama made a career of that.  Obama never had to decide, in the gales of June 5, 1944, whether to launch the most audacious invasion in history, where the consequences of failure would have been catastrophic.  Eisenhower did.  So it is not really a surprise to me that Eisenhower was a forceful, crafty, and cagey behind-the-scenes leader.  I would be greatly surprised, based on background and past performance, if Obama is.

What’s more, it is far more difficult today for a president to act differently behind the scenes than in public, as was the case in Eisenhower’s day with its more deferential press and its less leak-driven Washington culture.  Especially with someone as narcissistic as Obama, who would surely let it be known if he were in fact shaping the world rather than letting it shape him.

Finally, the passivity is of a piece with Obama’s past public rhetoric and political positions, with their explicit questioning of American leadership and exceptionalism, their expressed desire to subsume the United States into collective international bodies, and their frequent criticism of the use of anything remotely resembling hard power.

If I am right in my analysis of Obama, at the most trying time in world history since the 1930s, a time fraught with political and economic peril, the United States is drifting along, neither led nor leading.  It’s worse than that, actually.  The administration has largely abdicated authority over the things that are properly in the executive sphere, while at the same time it has engaged in unprecedented expansion of government and executive power in areas–notably in economics–where the potential for mischief vastly exceeds the potential to make things better.  Doing too much of some things and too little of others doesn’t mean that on average you’re doing just the right amount: quite the opposite.

When stymied domestically, as Obama has been by the victories of the Republicans in 2010, presidents have historically turned their attention overseas, where they can exercise authority and discretion more independently and with less constraint.  Obama has not done that.  To the contrary, the opportunities to do so have been immense, but the more these opportunities have grown, the more he has shrunk from seizing them.

One initial reaction is to regret this passivity.  But given Obama’s background, ideology, and history, a more considered reaction is to conclude that it isn’t such a bad thing: things could be worse, and would likely be so were he to act according to his (leftist) lights.

Yes, things could be worse, but they are bad enough now.  The United States and the world are suffering greatly due to the leadership vacuum on both economic matters (most notably the budget and entitlements) and international affairs.  Yes, as Adam Smith said, there is a lot of ruin in a nation.  And yes, as I wrote in the immediate aftermath of Obama’s election, we are testing just how much ruin there is in this one.

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1 Comment »

  1. Good Post.

    Comment by Mrs.SWP — March 20, 2011 @ 9:52 pm

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