The political winds certainly seem to be shifting a bit as I watch pundit after pundit begin, every so softly for some, to come to the same conclusion Maureen Dowd has about President Obama.
The oil won’t stop flowing, but the magic has.
The other day, Dowd referred to Obama as “President Spock” and moaned about his inability to relate. He’s not an emmoter-in-chief as Bill Clinton was, she complained. Instead he maintains an aloof distance and instead of tackling the problems that come with the presidency head-on, seems more inclined to treat them as annoyances or distractions.
All this brought on by an oil spill that Barack Obama had nothing to do with, but which is now starting to define his presidency. Said Dowd in the previous editorial:
Once more, he has willfully and inexplicably resisted fulfilling a signal part of his job: being a prism in moments of fear and pride, reflecting what Americans feel so they know he gets it.
Again, to those of us who watched his progression to the Presidency while warning about his wafer thin resume, this doesn’t come as a particular surprise. Call it “I told you so” if you wish, but many critics found his lack of leadership credentials to be the most important reason not to elect the man.
And now, the Dowds, Carvilles and Matthews of the world are discovering this problem.
Certainly, he didn’t cause the leak. George Bush didn’t cause Katrina. But he’s responsible for the federal response, a precedent set by Katrina and the Democrats who demonized and pilloried Bush. Obama is the guy on the spot to make a difference when a disaster strikes. He is the person who must mobilize the federal forces necessary, remove the red-tape and get things headed in the direction they need to be headed.
Where is that? He’s visited the area twice. He seems to have no idea of what further measures might be possible or necessary. He’s delegated everything to others and doesn’t seem that interested in taking an active hand. In fact, it appears he’s only made an effor to look like he’s interested because people are beginning to talk.
Where is the leadership? Where’s Obama taking an active role, for instance, in federalizing some National Guard troops, training them up on beach and marsh clean up and getting them where they need to be? Is every possible boom available on site and either deployed or ready to go? Why isn’t he in using the influence of his office to remove the red tape wound tightly about the Corps of Engineers and helping the governor of LA get his barrier islands constructed?
Why isn’t he talking to Saudi Arabia about how they used supertankers used to clean up the horrendous spill caused by Saddam Hussein over here? How many supertankers are available. Why aren’t we chartering them, and moving them in the spill area?
Instead we see the deployment of the Attorney General to explore criminal indictments against BP, a commission to study the problem and this:
One little hole a mile down on the ocean floor, so deep it seems like hell spewing up its sulfurous smoke, has turned the thrilling saga of “The One” into the gurgling horror of “The Abyss.” (Thank goodness James Cameron, the director of “The Abyss,” came to Washington Tuesday to help the administration figure out how to cap the BP well. What’s next? Sending down the Transformers and Megan Fox?)
Seriously – James Cameron is somehow more of an authority on submersibles than, say, the thousands upon thousands of experts within the oil industry (not just BP) who work with them daily in the environment in question? Is it any wonder to see people like Dowd beginning to lose confidence in Obama’s ability to lead?
Barack Obama isn’t responsible for the leak, and he’s made it clear, and rightfully so, who is. But he is responsible for protecting this country from all enemies and problems – even evil oil slicks that threaten our coastlines and way of life in those areas.
And he’s failing – miserably. Dowd continues to pretend this is something that Obama can change and quickly if he’ll only step up.
This president has made it clear that he’s not comfortable outside whatever domain he’s defined. But unless he wants his story to be marred by a pattern of passivity, detachment, acquiescence and compromise, he’d better seize control of the story line of his White House years. Woe-is-me is not an attractive narrative.
His problem isn’t a story line that he’s deliberately, for whatever reason, allowing to unfold. It is the fact that he hasn’t the experience, the fortitude or the leadership to do what is necessary to address the ever growing problem.
43 days and Obama remains on his balcony, detached, annoyed and clueless. That’s not how anyone wants to see their President.
As he did many times in the Illinois Senate, he is again voting “present”.
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Frank Rich has never seen an act by President Obama of which he didn’t approve or, if approval wasn’t really credibly possible, anything for which he couldn’t find an excuse. The oil spill is no exception:
Whatever Obama’s failings, he is infinitely more competent at coping with catastrophe than his predecessor. President Bush’s top disaster managers — the Homeland Security secretary, Michael Chertoff, as well as the notorious “Brownie” — professed ignorance of New Orleans’s humanitarian crisis a full day after the nation had started watching it live in real time on television. When Bush finally appeared, he shunned the city entirely and instead made a jocular show of vowing to rebuild the coastal home of his party’s former Senate leader, Trent Lott. He never did take charge.
The Obama administration has been engaged with the oil spill from the start — however haltingly and inarticulately at times. It was way too trusting of BP but was never AWOL. For all the second-guessing, it’s still not clear what else the president might have done to make a definitive, as opposed to cosmetic, difference in plugging the hole: yell louder at BP, send in troops and tankers, or, as James Carville would have it, assume the role of Big Daddy? The spill is not a Tennessee Williams play, its setting notwithstanding, and it’s hard to see what more drama would add, particularly since No Drama Obama’s considerable talents do not include credible play-acting.
It’s not clear what Bush could have done (or would have had to have done) had there been a competent mayor of New Orleans or governor of LA in office. Neither did their job. So the blame fell on Bush.
Obama faces a crisis in federal waters – not state. Those are waters that are his administration’s responsibility. Blame Bush won’t work. And neither will attempts to duck the Katrina comparisons.
Rich speaks of “airbrushing” of the facts surrounding Katrina. I must have missed that. But that is precisely what has already begun in the defense of Obama with this claim that he and his administration were “engaged” from “day one”. Reactions to oil spills which are standard operating procedure regardless of who is in office are not “engagement”. In fact, most wouldn’t consider them to have become really engaged in the spill for a week or two and then, it appeared to be minimally and reluctantly. In fact, it appeared to be a distraction, an annoyance of which the administration would prefer to be relieved.
If there is any “airbrushing” going on, the left has definitely been engaged in that since “day one”.
Rich claims that it was Bush who made the masses doubt the competence of government (with his Katrina performance). He says:
Long before Obama took office, the public was plenty skeptical that government could do anything right. Eight years of epic Bush ineptitude and waste only added to Washington’s odor. Now Obama is stuck between a rock and a Tea Party. His credibility as a champion of reformed, competent government is held hostage by video from the gulf. And this in an election year when the very idea of a viable federal government is under angrier assault than at any time since the Gingrich revolution and militia mobilization of 1994-5 and arguably since the birth of the modern conservative movement in the 1960s.
But why is the “idea of a viable federal government” under assault?
As usual, Rich wants’ to blame it on Bush. It is a tried and true blame shifting device that progressives have been deploying for the 18 months Obama’s been in office. They don’t seem to realize, however, that it lost its cache after about 6 months. This is Obama’s show now, and as Peggy Noonan points out, the problem is competence:
This is what happened with Katrina, and Katrina did at least two big things politically. The first was draw together everything people didn’t like about the Bush administration, everything it didn’t like about two wars and high spending and illegal immigration, and brought those strands into a heavy knot that just sat there, soggily, and came to symbolize Bushism. The second was illustrate that even though the federal government in our time has continually taken on new missions and responsibilities, the more it took on, the less it seemed capable of performing even its most essential jobs. Conservatives got this point—they know it without being told—but liberals and progressives did not. They thought Katrina was the result only of George W. Bush’s incompetence and conservatives’ failure to “believe in government.” But Mr. Obama was supposed to be competent.
But, as Noonan points out, over these 18 months, more and more Americans have come to the conclusion he’s not. Those are pretty ugly thoughts when it comes to this president to some I suppose, but in fact, he’s demonstrated nothing to persuade most people otherwise.
And it is the image of the deep water oil well gushing oil into the Gulf that Noonan turns into metaphor of the Obama presidency and why his competence is questioned. Think taxpayer and the borrowed money his administration has been responsible for spending, think the proposed trillion dollar budgets as far as the eye can see, think his disconnection with the priorities of the people for favored agenda items.
While this disaster might rightfully shine a light on BP and the oil industry’s lack of planning for such a problem, it also erodes the ability of politicians to sell government as the most competent answer to our problems. Government has a specific role for which it is most suited. Defense, legal and judicial systems, stable currency, and minimal legislation to enable and oversee those systems.
Beyond that, it becomes intrusive, cumbersome, highly bureaucratic, unresponsive and expensive. The oil spill simply points this out fairly graphically. Health care reform, as it comes into play over the years, will reinforce that point even further.
Noonan, who I believe supported the Obama candidacy, is bothered by the effect the spill and Obama’s disconnectedness and inept governing to this point will have on his presidency. It is I think her way of saying, in a nuanced way, that she regrets her choice:
The disaster in the Gulf may well spell the political end of the president and his administration, and that is no cause for joy. It’s not good to have a president in this position—weakened, polarizing and lacking broad public support—less than halfway through his term. That it is his fault is no comfort. It is not good for the stability of the world, or its safety, that the leader of “the indispensable nation” be so weakened. I never until the past 10 years understood the almost moral imperative that an American president maintain a high standing in the eyes of his countrymen.
For the most part, I agree with her point that we and the world are best served by a President who is held in high esteem by his or her citizenry. But that’s something that is earned, not just given. This man sought the presidency after slamming the competence of his predecessor on every occasion possible. And when confronted by a disaster of his own, we get this:
Mr. Obama himself, when running for president, made much of Bush administration distraction and detachment during Katrina. Now the Republican Party will, understandably, go to town on Mr. Obama’s having gone before this week only once to the gulf, and the fund-raiser in San Francisco that seemed to take precedence, and the EPA chief who decided to cancel a New York fund-raiser only after the press reported that she planned to attend.
You reap what you sow. When you slam the opposition and their leader as incompetent (I recall that word used often by sitting Democratic leadership) you imply that if you’re elected, you won’t be incompetent. It’s his standard and right now he’s hoist on his own petard.
Most impartial observers haven’t seen much competence displayed in the past 18 months. Not only has the administration seemingly not been up to the job, they’ve attempted to continue the blame-shifting that worked for the first 6 months of their existence, apparently still not realizing who is now President of the United States.
This is all yours, Mr. Obama.
Lead or go find something else to do.
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Nate Silver, a guy I respect and enjoy reading, dances around the point of a Weekly Standard comparison of FDR and Obama.
If Franklin Delano Roosevelt were president today […] liberal health care reform would have been enacted already. […]
Silver, a man of numbers (he was tweeting Olympic goalie shot blocking stats during the US/Canada gold medal hockey game for heaven sake), goes to them and wonders why FDR’s (and LBJ as a comparison) congressional majorities weren’t mentioned by the Standard.
Silver goes on to talk about the huge size of the majorities FDR enjoyed, the implication being that they made a significant difference.
But that wasn’t the Standard’s point as seen in these paragraphs that Silver also quotes:
The reason is tied to what is probably the greatest difference between FDR and Obama. Roosevelt took command of Washington. Obama hasn’t. “FDR became the father of the modern presidency by moving the Chief Executive to the center of the American political universe,” John Yoo writes in his new book on presidential power, Crisis and Command. “Roosevelt’s revolution radically shifted the balance of power among the three branches of government.” […]
FDR seized legislative authority. The bills that Congress passed in his first 100 days and beyond were produced by the Roosevelt administration and ratified reflexively by Congress.
Those three highlighted quotes are the reason for Obama’s problem – quite simply a lack of leadership. Where FDR was proactive, wrote the legislation and then twisted arms to get it passed in a majority Democratic congress, Obama has done none of that. He outsourced it. He instead left it up to Congress to write the legislation (with predictable results) and squandered a majority by passing nothing of his big ticket agenda. He’s now reduced to parliamentary tricks to try to pass health care reform legislation.
Whether or not Obama’s majorities are as big as those of FDR or LBJ enjoyed isn’t the point – the point is he had majorities and he squandered them by sitting back, leaving it all to Congress and letting party infighting slow and then stall his agenda. Had he, as the Standard notes about FDR, taken “command of Washington” and the legislative process the outcome might have been very different. Had he introduced legislation written by the administration, he had a very good chance of having health care done by last year.
He didn’t. So the point isn’t about the size of majorities. It isn’t clear Obama would have been in any better shape had he had FDR’s majorities. The point is Obama is no FDR because he lacks the leadership qualities, skills and abilities of FDR, not because he had a smaller majority in Congress.
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I certainly wouldn’t put much confidence in the claim that relations have improved between the US and China. In fact, despite Obama’s claims, it appears they’re much worse. Recent actions by the US have riled the Chinese to the point that they’re being anything but subtle about their feelings and certainly not keeping those feelings out of state sanctioned publications. According to the UK’s Sunday Times, 55% of Chinese agree that “a cold war will break out between the US and China”.
What has spurred this turn of events?
The finding came after battles over Taiwan, Tibet, trade, climate change, internet freedom and human rights which have poisoned relations in the three months since President Barack Obama made a fruitless visit to Beijing.
You’ll most likely remember how the administration touted the visit as one which significantly improved out relations with China. Apparently the administration was the only one which saw it that way:
During Obama’s visit, the US ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, claimed relations were “really at an all-time high in terms of the bilateral atmosphere … a cruising altitude that is higher than any other time in recent memory”, according to an official transcript.
The ambassador must have been the only person at his embassy to think so, said a diplomat close to the talks.
“The truth was that the atmosphere was cold and intransigent when the president went to Beijing yet his China team went on pretending that everything was fine,” the diplomat said.
In reality, Chinese officials argued over every item of protocol, rigged a town hall meeting with a pre-selected audience, censored the only interview Obama gave to a Chinese newspaper and forbade the Americans to use their own helicopters to fly him to the Great Wall.
President Hu Jintao refused to give an inch on Obama’s plea to raise the value of the Chinese currency, while his vague promises of co-operation on climate change led the Americans to blunder into a fiasco at the Copenhagen summit three weeks later.
Diplomats say they have been told that there was “frigid” personal chemistry between Obama and the Chinese president, with none of the superficial friendship struck up by previous leaders of the two nations.
And, if you can believe it, it has gone downhill from there.
An independent survey of Chinese-language media for The Sunday Times has found army and navy officers predicting a military showdown and political leaders calling for China to sell more arms to America’s foes. The trigger for their fury was Obama’s decision to sell $6.4 billion (£4 billion) worth of weapons to Taiwan, the thriving democratic island that has ruled itself since 1949.
“We should retaliate with an eye for an eye and sell arms to Iran, North Korea, Syria, Cuba and Venezuela,” declared Liu Menxiong, a member of the Chinese people’s political consultative conference.
He added: “We have nothing to be afraid of. The North Koreans have stood up to America and has anything happened to them? No. Iran stands up to America and does disaster befall it? No.”
Apparently they’re on to the new but unspoken motto of the Obama administration “speak a lot, but do nothing”. What is being sensed by these military leaders in China is weakness. And such weakness is never left alone or ignored in international politics – it is always, in some way, shape or form exploited. While some may see this as nothing more than saber rattling, knowing the Chinese, it’s much more than that. It signals a significant change in our relationship:
Chinese analysts think the leadership, riding a wave of patriotism as the year of the tiger dawns, may go further.
“This time China must punish the US,” said Major-General Yang Yi, a naval officer. “We must make them hurt.” A major-general in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Luo Yuan, told a television audience that more missiles would be deployed against Taiwan. And a PLA strategist, Colonel Meng Xianging, said China would “qualitatively upgrade” its military over the next 10 years to force a showdown “when we’re strong enough for a hand-to-hand fight with the US”.
Chinese indignation was compounded when the White House said Obama would meet the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, in the next few weeks.
“When someone spits on you, you have to get back,” said Huang Xiangyang, a commentator in the China Daily newspaper, usually seen as a showcase for moderate opinion.
If that’s the moderate opinion, you can imagine what the more hawkish among China’s opinion makers are saying.
This is what happens when amateurs play at foreign policy and those they’re dealing with sniff out weak (or non-existent) leadership. As I mentioned quite some time ago, 2009 would be a year of relative calm as other nations took the measure of the new administration and what they could expect. Once that was done, 2010 would most likely be the year when they’d act – and frankly, given this from China, it’s most likely not going to be a pleasant year for US foreign policy.
Oh, and if you think China is willing to back the US on new sanctions against Iran – as the administration has been claiming – I’d be willing to take that bet and give odds that no such backing will ever be given by China.
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But apparently, Barack Obama still thinks it does. Unfortunately, for him, many Democrats in Congress don’t agree. Mary Landrieu for one:
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said health care reform “is on life support, unfortunately,” and the president should have been more specific with how Democrats should move forward.
“He should have been more clear, and I am hoping that in the next week or two he will because that is what it is going to take if it is at all possible to get it done,” Landrieu told reporters. “Mailing in general suggestions, sending them over the transom, is not necessarily going to work.”
Obama’s been mailing it in for a year. Leadership in this particular case is when someone takes the lead in giving direction to the legislative product and process so when it ends up in Congress, the kinks have been worked out on both sides before they vote and enough are happy with the product that it is able to pass both chambers. Presidents have been involved in that sort of leadership since there’s been a presidency. However, it seems it’s a foreign concept to Mr. Obama. It appears he believes that Congress should take his nebulous and sometimes contradictory musings and mumblings and put a coherent bill together which is satisfactory to all sides. The “from on high” pontificating that apparently some scribes at lower levels are supposed to faithfully record and from which they are to somehow fashion acceptable legislation that will quickly pass doesn’t seem to be working, does it?
That’s not how presidents in the past have lead and it certainly doesn’t appear the Obama brand of non-leadership is having much success. Landrieu is trying to be as tactful as possible with her “mail it in” comment, but it is apparent that they have seen nothing in terms of presidential leadership on this issue (or others). So they keep wandering in circles fighting among themselves (something else a leader would attempt to stop vs. standing at a podium and chastising them for his lack of leadership) and have produced a monstrosity of a bill which they can only pass via parliamentary tricks.
The “sidecar reconciliation” is one such trick which, unfortunately for them, seems to have a show stopping Catch-22:
“Neither the House nor the Senate have figured out how to pass a reconciliation sidecar first,” one senior Senate aide says. “We are being asked to pass a piece of legislation that amends another piece of legislation which does not exist yet. We are having problems with the CBO and parliamentarian on that front.”
Got that? The House (Democrats) doesn’t trust the Senate (Democrats) to fix the Senate bill they are currently being pressured to pass. Therefore the House wants the fix passed first so the Senate can’t renege on it. But, you can’t pass a fix on something that doesn’t yet exist. So here they sit, in a parliamentary stew of their own making and with presidential leadership simply not present – except for speechifying and berating everyone else but himself for the failure of his leadership.
It’s an amazing performance.
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An address that has become popularly known on blogs and Twitter as the SOTU. In the case of the one scheduled for tonight, some think it should be abbreviated as the STFU address, but then there are always some who’d prefer silence to the usual nonsense that takes place at the Capitol.
So what will we hear tonight? Well as we get closer, more and more is leaking out. One thing that leaked earlier than the rest is the spending freeze we’ve written about. 25 billion a year for three years. Make sure you listen for what the president talks about spending tonight to balance it against that huge spending freeze. As mentioned, we do many more times that amount of deficit spending each month. If that is the sum of his plan for addressing the deficit, he’s not at all serious about it.
The NY Times has an interesting paragraph in their preview of the SOTU.
When Mr. Obama presents his first State of the Union address on Wednesday evening, aides said he would accept responsibility, though not necessarily blame, for failing to deliver swiftly on some of the changes he promised a year ago. But he will not, aides said, accede to criticism that his priorities are out of step with the nation’s.
First, he will accept the “responsibility” but not necessarily the “blame”? How’s that work? If you’re responsible for something and it doesn’t get done, who else is to blame? Another in a long line of indicators that this guy is not a leader. One of the first things any company commander makes clear to a new platoon leader is the platoon leader is responsible for everything that does or doesn’t happen in his platoon. And that platoon leader knows exactly who the company commander will blame. The same is going to happen here. Obama may decide he’s not going to accept blame, but he’s really not the final arbiter on that, is he?
However, if that’s the Obama game plan, it will be interesting to hear to whom or what he tries to shift the blame. Bush, of course, is in for a round of finger pointing (perhaps more obliquely than usual, but I’m sure it will be there). One thing to remember when he begins that is the Congress – the branch of government that appropriates and spends money as well as making laws (and regulations) – has been in Democratic hands for the last 4 years.
I’d bet he’ll also set his sights on blaming “obstructionist” Republicans. Of course to buy into the “obstructionist” argument you have to again be ignorant of the fact that Democrats have enjoyed overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress to include, until recently, a super-majority in the Senate. So it is unclear who he can credibly blame, other than himself, for not passing his agenda items except, perhaps, the leadership of the Congress. And we all know how that would be received.
Then there’s the sentence that Obama refuses to “accede to criticism that his priorities are out of step with the nation’s”. Pure arrogance. Pure hubris. Poll after poll have made it clear the majority of Americans do not want this monstrosity of a health care bill specifically and in general they want government’s size and expenditures reigned in. And the sooner the better.
Obama and his team still haven’t recognized the fact that the entire political landscape changed with the financial crisis. He seems to think if he gives that crisis enough lip service while proceeding with an agenda ancillary to it, he can still do the agenda. No. Not true. All one has to do is read the Pew survey I posted yesterday to understand where the public’s attention is and where the public wants government’s attention focused. Almost without exception it’s the economy and jobs. All the rest is simply not important. The bunch in DC better figure it out and do so quickly or, as has been promised, they’ll get someone who will – beginning this year with the mid-terms.
So in effect, doubling down on an ineffective and unpopular decision doesn’t make one a strong leader. Instead, in the face of what those who put him in office want him to focus on, it makes him seem more of a petulant and stubborn adolescent who refuses to change because the adults want him too.
As Mr. Obama navigates a crossroads of his presidency, a moment when he signals what lessons he has drawn from his first year in office, the public posture of the White House is that any shortcomings are the result of failing to explain effectively what they were doing — and why. He will acknowledge making mistakes in pursuit of his agenda, aides said, but will not toss the agenda overboard in search of a more popular one.
That’s incredible. It is the very same fallback Democrats took when they lost the presidency in 2000. It wasn’t the message, it just wasn’t properly conveyed. For them it is never the message, even after poll after poll tells them it is. The man gave almost 30 speeches on health care and the public still has said – repeatedly – “no”. What part of “no” doesn’t he and the Democats understand? Which again brings us to the last sentence and the petulance I describe above. It also points to a man who has yet to understand what I pointed out previously – the political landscape has irrevocably changed since he introduced that agenda on the campaign trail. In politics those who can’t adapt “die” electorally – and that is precisely where he and the Democrats are headed.
Finally, it gives lie to the contention that Obama is a pragmatist. If what the NYT is claiming is true, he’s the very antithesis of a pragmatic politician. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool ideologue who will not give up his ideological agenda regardless of the hand reality deals him. And that sort of ideological intransigence will cost him politically. While I can admire those who try to live their ideology, I don’t particularly care for those who try to force it on others. And that’s precisely what he is attempting here.
I’m sure there will be some surprises tonight. I’m interested to hear his “pivot” toward jobs and the economy. And I’m sure the speech will be eloquent. But we’re over the awe of his eloquence. It’s means zip anymore. Those 30 eloquent speeches on health care delivered what? Nothing. Even though I’m quite happy about that, it makes the point that he’s all speech and no action. He is “just words”.
Speaking of words, I’m trying to get an idea of what the over/under is on how many times he’ll say “I”, “me” or “my” tonight. This is the first SOTU for the most self-absorbed president in my lifetime and I can’t help but believe the count will be high.
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It is so obvious it frustrates me that others are too ideologically or politically blind to admit it. The reason the Democrats are in the shape they’re in today has to do with the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and his obvious lack of leadership.
Let me give you the latest example found in a Politico article today. It is, in fact, all about why the legislative agenda is in trouble and Democrats are skittish.
Congressional Democrats — stunned out of silence by Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts — say they’re done swallowing their anger with President Barack Obama and ready to go public with their gripes.
If the sentiment isn’t quite heads-must-roll, it’s getting there.
Hill Democrats are demanding that Obama’s brain trust — especially senior adviser David Axelrod and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel — shelve their grand legislative ambitions to focus on the economic issues that will determine the fates of shaky Democratic majorities in both houses.
And they want the White House to step up — quickly — to help shape the party’s message and steer it through the wreckage of health care reform.
Shorter version: “Where’s the leadership from the President?”
It is the same question the Democrats have been asking all year. Left to their own devices, Congressional Democrats have made a hash out of this legislative year. But they’ve been given no choice. Other than a general agenda, Obama has mostly been AWOL when it came to the details of his policies and the direction Congressional Democrats should take. Consequently the process has been left to the very disparate Democratic caucus to formulate and attempt to pass legislation. No leadership on what the legislation should and shouldn’t contain, no attempt to win over those who may or may not agree, no direction and help in fashioning and passing the bills.
And now you have Democrats asking, out loud, for the sort of leadership they require to pass this president’s agenda. And they’re simply not getting it. In fact, the White House’s reaction is classic:
The problem, from the perspective of the White House, is that fractious Democrats provide all the political direction of a nine-needled compass — and often send contradictory messages about how they want him to proceed.
Good Lord! Leaders don’t wait for those they lead to tell him or her “how they want him to proceed”, followers do. What part of “you’re in charge” doesn’t Obama get? They’re sending “contradictory messages” because there’s a leadership vacuum and no one is stepping forward to fill it.
The so-called leader is waiting for those to whom he is supposed to give direction to give him direction. Leaders step forward and give direction. They don’t wait on it from those they’re supposed to lead.
And you wonder why this year has been a disaster for Democrats?
Don’t expect it to get any better – it appears Obama, or “the White House”, actually feel this is what leaders do.
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I think Toby Harnden of the UK’s Telegraph describes pretty well what most of us have observed and concluded about President Obama:
Perhaps we should not be surprised that the land of the permanent campaign has produced a president like Barack Obama. During his White House bid, Mr Obama’s staff argued that his masterful oversight of the machinery that ultimately got him elected was his highest achievement.
In many respects this was true, though Mr Obama was more chairman than CEO. Even Republican political operatives acknowledge that the Obama ’08 campaign was a thing of beauty.
Essentially, however, Mr Obama won because of his persona – post-racial, healing, cool, articulate and inspirational. In a sense, therefore, his greatest achievement in life is being Barack Obama. Or the campaign version, at least.
Therein lies the problem. While campaigning could centre around soaring rhetoric, governing is altogether messier. It involves tough, unpopular choices and cutting deals with opponents. It requires doing things rather than talking about them, let alone just being.
Mr Obama is showing little appetite for this. Instead of being the commander-in-chief, he is the campaigner-in-chief.
I think this is best reflected in a number that’s been circulating recently – Obama has done 2 to 3 times more political fundraisers at this point in his presidency than did either GW Bush or Bill Clinton. While they were apparently concentrating more on the job at hand Obama seems unable, or unwilling, to drop the campaign mode and step into the governing role.
Consequently Afghanistan strategy is adrift, health care reform is leaderless and Obama flits around doing fundraisers and campaign-style townhalls.
Now, he is stumping for Democratic candidates in states he won last year but which are now in danger. Last Wednesday in Hackensack, Mr Obama took to the stage to proclaim: “Your voice can change the world. Your voice can elect Jon Corzine, governor once again of New Jersey.” Change the world? Mr Corzine is a former Goldman Sachs executive whose political career was launched when he spent $57 million of his own money on a Senate seat in 2000.
The rally was an attempted 2008 reprise. There was the spontaneous (or not) cry of “I love you!” bashfully acknowledged by Mr Obama with a “I love you back.”
There were the Obama-led chants of “Fired up! Ready to go!” and the ubiquitous “Yes We Can” signs.
And as he always does, Mr Obama blamed every economic woe on the Bush years, conveniently forgetting that Republicans are no longer in office and it’s been his mess for nine months now.
The “blame Bush” card, just like the race card, is wearing very thin. It is also worth remembering that the budgets that were passed by Congress during the last two years as well as the initial 700 billion bailout package appropriated by that same Democratic Congress all had Mr. Obama’s stamp of approval by way of his vote for each of them.
But, going back to the subject, it seems like every time it gets a little hot in Washington DC, Obama’s answer is to leave and rally somewhere as if doing so will somehow improve the other situation.
And then, in what one can only describe as a fit of stupidity that compounds the problem of perception, the White House picks a fight with a news organization with which it has issues. It ends up rallying the other news organizations to the side of the one it’s picking on and ends up looking both petty and vindictive.
Finally, it appears even the comedians have had enough:
“President Obama agreed to commit an additional 40,000 troops to help fight Fox News,” quipped NBC’s Jay Leno. “Senior White House adviser David Axelrod told reporters that Fox News is just pushing a point of view. Well, yes, but at least they’ve got a point of view.”
Losing the comedians is usually an indicator of a loss public support. And all of them are now taking pot-shots, even the odius Bill Maher.
Mr Obama was elected on a promise of being post-partisan to Washington and transforming the country. Thus far, he has won the support of only a single Republican for his health-care plan and has shown himself to be as aggressive a Democratic partisan in office as anyone in the fabled Clinton war room.
Beyond the grand announcements, fine speeches and his eager acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, Mr Obama has yet to achieve anything of substance. It is time for the campaign to end.
But it won’t. It can’t. And there is a very simple reason for that – Mr. Obama has never done anything of substance, nor has he ever run anything of substance. He simply isn’t equipped with the experience and know-how necessary to do that. He’s never been a leader, had to be a leader and doesn’t know how to lead.
He knows how to campaign. It’s that at which he is good. Campaigning is all “grand announcements” and “fine speeches” in which the campaigner never has to put up or shut up. Now that he finds himself in this rather awkward position of actually having to deliver on his “grand announcements” and “fine speeches”, he reverts to that he knows best. And that means a perpetual campaign.
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It is all fine and good to have a discussion and even a debate about future strategy in Afghanistan. But probably not 6 months after you’ve announced your former strategy. For some reason, dithering has a tendency to be interpreted as a weakness, not a strength. In war, weaknesses are attacked and exploited. And that may be exactly what we’re beginning to see:
Several thousand foreign fighters have poured into Afghanistan to bolster the Taliban insurgency, the country’s defense minister said yesterday as he called for more international troops.
The remarks come as the United States debates whether to substantially increase its forces in Afghanistan or to conduct a more limited campaign focused on targeting al-Qaeda figures – most of whom are believed to be in neighboring Pakistan.
The minister’s comments hit on a key worry of the United States – that not sending enough troops to Afghanistan will open the door again to al-Qaeda. They also suggest that the Afghan government is nervous about the U.S. commitment amid talk of changing the strategy and a surge in violence in recent months.
This isn’t a Senate debate where you can take whatever time you need and if it’s not finished by the nearest recess, you put it off until you come back. Wars can’t be tabled. A war continues with or without a decision made by either side. And, in many cases in history, wars have been lost because decisions were delayed or not made in a timely manner.
The fact that foreign fighters are pouring in now has to be viewed in a particular context. You can’t snap your finger and produce “foreign fighters” in Afghanistan. They have to be recruited, transported, trained and then gotten to A’stan. So for the enemy to have these fighters showing up now would indicate, at least to me, that they have sensed some form of weakness in the American committment (and make no mistake – there is no NATO Afghanistan mission without the US) and they have been able to sell recruits on the idea that they’re about to turn everything around there and win. And note this: the Taliban won’t have any esoteric conversations about whether or not running us off is a “victory” or just “success”. They’ll trumpet to the world that they kicked our butt while they then barbarically subdue, punish and seek revenge on anyone who worked with us. They don’t care how it happens – force of arms or us just pulling out – it is still a victory. And everyone likes to be on the winning side:
“The enemy has changed. Their number has increased,” the defense minister, Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak, told lawmakers in a speech. He said that about 4,000 fighters, mostly from Chechnya, North Africa, and Pakistan, “have joined with them and they are involved in the fighting in Afghanistan.”
The longer the administration continues to dither, the easier it is for the radicals to sell their cause and claim the indecision by the administration indicates that, as they’ve always said, the US hasn’t the political will to finish much of anything that extends over a year or two. Bush would actually be seen as the exception.
Unless and until a decision is made and made rather quickly, recruiting should be good for the radicals.
And of course, good recruiting for them means more losses among our troops. Sure we usually have a high ratio of Taliban kills to every soldier we lose, but that’s not the point. The point is indecision emboldens the enemy and that ends up killing our soldiers.
There is absolutely no reason that a decision could not be reached within a week or two. One of President Obama’s primary jobs is that Commander in Chief. It’s time he started acting like one.
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As mentioned the other day, when I first heard Obama’s UN speech I wondered if I was just reading too much into what I’d heard. Then I saw Michael Gerson’s column and felt some relief about the fact that I wasn’t the only one which felt that way. Today I discover Howard Fineman, a pretty avid Obama supporter, is feeling a bit uneasy for precisely the same reasons Gerson and I did.
The president’s problem isn’t that he is too visible; it’s the lack of content in what he says when he keeps showing up on the tube. Obama can seem a mite too impressed with his own aura, as if his presence on the stage is the Answer. There is, at times, a self-referential (even self-reverential) tone in his big speeches. They are heavily salted with the words “I” and “my.” (He used the former 11 times in the first few paragraphs of his address to the U.N. last week.) Obama is a historic figure, but that is the beginning, not the end, of the story.
Even I didn’t count the “I’s” in his speech so it obviously bothered Fineman greatly. The speech apparently made the same sort of impression on him as it did others.
Additionally, Fineman notes something Obama is fond of using but that is beginning to wear very thin:
There is only so much political mileage that can still be had by his reminding the world that he is not George W. Bush. It was the winning theme of the 2008 campaign, but that race ended nearly a year ago. The ex-president is now more ex than ever, yet the current president, who vowed to look forward, is still reaching back to Bush as bogeyman.
He did it again in that U.N. speech. The delegates wanted to know what the president was going to do about Israel and the Palestinian territories. He answered by telling them what his predecessor had failed to do. This was effective for his first month or two. Now it is starting to sound more like an excuse than an explanation.
Remarkably, Fineman invokes – get ready for it – Ronald Regan as someone Obama badly needs to emulate:
The model is a man whose political effectiveness Obama repeatedly says he admires: Ronald Reagan. There was never doubt about what he wanted. The Gipper made his simple, dramatic tax cuts the centerpiece not only of his campaign but also of the entire first year of his presidency.
Obama seems to think he’ll get credit for the breathtaking scope of his ambition. But unless he sees results, it will have the opposite effect—diluting his clout, exhausting his allies, and emboldening his enemies.
And, as Fineman notes, that’s already begun to happen. Domestically his agenda is in a shambles, support is eroding faster than a pizza at a Weight Watcher’s convention and his political enemies are in full voice against him. Internationally, you can see the pack beginning to circle gauging how weak their prey is and what piece they can rip off of him before the bigger predators take their chunk of his hide.
Fineman’s other point is why that’s happening – Obama seems to think that if he appears enough times and says something enough times his words will carry the day. It is as if he thinks that constitutes leadership. If Obama does model himself after Reagan, it is only to emulate his communication ability while ignoring Reagan’s leadership abilities.
Fineman’s first paragraph really makes a worthy concluding one:
Despite his many words and television appearances, our elegant and eloquent president remains more an emblem of change than an agent of it. He’s a man with an endless, worthy to-do list—health care, climate change, bank reform, global capital regulation, AfPak, the Middle East, you name it—but, as yet, no boxes checked “done.” This is a problem that style will not fix. Unless Obama learns to rely less on charm, rhetoric, and good intentions and more on picking his spots and winning in political combat, he’s not going to be reelected, let alone enshrined in South Dakota.
So it isn’t just me, or those on the right who’re imagining things. In fact it seems our assessment was pretty objective. When the Howard Fineman’s of the world (don’t ever look for the leg-humping Chris Matthews or those of his ilk to have this sort of an awakening) begin to notice, it should be fairly obvious to everyone. If words were action, Barack Obama would be master of the world. But they’re not. The problem, as Fineman and other are learning, is Barack Obama has never had to put his words into action. That requires leadership – something he has never learned, never exercised and increasingly seems unwilling to take on (witness the delaying on A’stan while he sprints off to Copenhagen to do what he does best – talk – about the Olympics).
Fineman has defined the problem. But he can’t provide the solution. That can only come from one man. And to this point he hasn’t demonstrated he understands the problem much less the fact that he must provide the solution. In fact, as Fineman notes, he seems more caught up in himself and his words than ever. It could mean a long three years for both the Democrats and the country. And Fineman’s right, unless things change fairly rapidly, reelection is not something Obama should count on in 2012.
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