Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Something More to be Perplexed About

For my money, John Podhoretz is one of the more lucid and level-headed members of the fraternity of conservative pundits. Yes, he’s reliably partisan, but he’s not one to fly off the handle. So it’s a little surprising to see a post from him under the portentous title: “Obama’s Presidency Hangs by a Thread.”

What does Podhoretz think is threatening to do the Obama presidency in? Nine percent unemployment? A budgetary crisis? The public’s turning against the war in Afghanistan?  ObamaCare?  No, Podhoretz thinks that Obama will pay a political price not so much for what he has done, as for relentlessly projecting the appearance of disengagement:
“Japan may be on the verge of an unprecedented catastrophe. Saudi Arabia is all but colonizing Bahrain. Qaddafi is close to retaking Libya, with bloodbath to follow. And . . . the president of the United States is going on ESPN to talk about the NCAA and delivering speeches today on his rather dull plan to replace No Child Left Behind with No Teenager Left Behind, or something like that.

“It’s hard to overstate how poorly Barack Obama is doing in the face of these crises — and I don’t even mean how he’s doing substantively, which is a scandal in itself. I mean how he’s doing politically. Recall how much hay Michael Moore made of the fact that George W. Bush read for nine minutes in that Florida classroom on 9/11 after being informed that the first plane had struck.”

“We’re going on four weeks now, or more, that Barack Obama has been reading My Pet Goat.”
Although, I’m far from convinced that Obama’s political situation is nearly as dire as Podhoretz seems to think it is, I get the point about presidential theatrics. When he was running for president, Obama sold himself as “no drama Obama.” That was an effective pitch when John McCain seemed to be losing his poise during the campaign over the banking crisis. But Obama too often looks like a lackadaisical president who should have better things to do than squeezing in another round of golf before he shares his NCAA predictions with us.

The Gulf Oil spill was a case in point. It took the White House a long time to catch onto the political urgency of the situation.  When it finally did, its best efforts to show that the president was giving the matter his undivided attention were merely funny. Remember the bit about “plug[ging] the damn hole”? That was the best Obama could do to show people he was taking command of the situation.

That’s just one example of the trouble this president has showing the public what matters and what he cares about. Obama never said anything indicating that he grasped the strategic and moral import of what was happening in Iran the summer before last, and doesn’t look like he’s on top of what’s happening in northern Africa today. You could say substantially the same thing about the budgetary crisis. Obama looks like a disinterested spectator watching the action up on Capitol Hill.

The perplexing thing is that someone with Obama’s gifts as a communicator should be able to dispel the appearance of disengagement with a few theatrical gestures and well-chosen words. No one, for example, expected him to do much to support popular resistance to the tyrannical regimes in Iran and Libya. But surely he could have said something more inspiring than calling the conduct of tyrants “unacceptable” when he was so visibly inclined to accept it. What would it have cost him strategically or politically to say something that sounded more like “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”?

Popular expectations about “presidential leadership” are mostly a matter of projecting appearances. Why does Obama seem so determined to disappoint them?


Anonymous said...

Part of me is perplexed, like you. The other part, maybe like you, tells me that this is all quite purposeful on Obama's part. He is so above it all, so ethereal-like, so damn smart, that he can just go about business without anything -- war, unrest, economic meltdown, nuclear meltdowns, budget woes, etc. -- get in the way of anything on his schedule (e.g., golf, brackets, My Pet Goat). It's going to bite him in 2012. I smell a primary challenge.

John Brown said...

Obama thinks that he is projecting the appearance of leadership. He and his admirers have a very different idea than the rest of us of what presidential leadership looks like. Today everything looks different across the partisan divide.