Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Presidential Machismo

No one thinks that getting Osama bin Laden hasn’t helped Obama politically in the short run. But how much will it help in the longer term? The conventional wisdom in liberal circles is that it will help a lot. Here, for example, is Michael Tomasky:
“[T]he killing of Osama bin Laden is changing this equation dramatically. Alleged Muslim Barack Obama did in two and a half years what Bush couldn’t do in seven and a half. It wasn’t just the result. The nature of the operation is still breathtaking, weeks later, and the risk Obama took, which he conveyed with masterful cool in his 60 Minutes interview, is mind-blowing (imagine if bin Laden hadn’t been there!). You can call the president who oversaw the operation many things, but weak isn’t one of them.”
I can see Tomasky's point, but I wonder whether liberal minds are a little too easily blown away by the spectacle of foreign policy machismo from one of their own. So far, the bounce Obama has gotten in the polls doesn’t look nearly as impressive as you’d think it would if Tomasky were correct. And that’s perfectly understandable in light of the widespread expectation that, presented with the same opportunity, most any other president would have done substantially the same thing Obama did. (President McCain might have blackened his face, donned some night-vision goggles and led the Navy SEALS into battle himself.)

Moreover, the most obvious precedents don’t support the idea that displays of bellicosity do presidents much long term political good. Neither President Bush got much lasting political mileage from more impressive displays of foreign policy machismo, like summarily expelling Noriega from Panama and Saddam from Kuwait, or deposing the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam in Iraq. Indeed, by his own admission, W. spent a lot of time regretting letting himself be photographed swaggering around in a flight suit in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner.

Maybe the theory is that the Bushes didn’t get a lasting bump from successful-looking military operations because they were just doing what voters expect from a Republican president. Obama, on the other hand, is a Democratic president playing against type. On this theory, Democrats come into the White House laboring under a public presumption of national security wimpishness. So rebutting that presumption negates a formidable political advantage that any Republican presidential candidate would otherwise enjoy in 2012.

There’s probably something to this, but again, the historical precedents don’t suggest that it’s a whole lot. Remember how psychologically invested liberals were in the notion that John Kerry was a decorated Vietnam veteran reporting for duty in 2004, while George Bush was just an aging rich kid who’d exploited family connections to sit the war out? Kerry wasn’t just a guy who'd ordered his military subordinates to draw up a commando mission and given them the green light to execute it.  He was a genuine war hero who'd fired on the enemy, and been fired on, in anger. Yet that didn’t make up for Kerry's vacillations about the Iraq war or even enable him effectively to rebut the swift-boaters’ allegations that his recently rediscovered military bearing was an affectation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It would have mattered a whole lot if it happened a bit closer to Nov 2012. There is just so much mileage Obama can get out of it between now and then. It's not as if he can use the "I got bin Laden tag line" to everything (as portrayed in a recent SNL skit).

Your comparisons to the Kerry Bush contest are interesting. Presidential elections play out over a long period and sometimes it's the case that the seemingly best attribute turns out to be a candidate's worst liability.