Thursday, August 11, 2011

Presidential Buyer’s Remorse

You can’t open a newspaper to the op-ed page these days without seeing a column from a left-of-center pundit that, if not coming right out and saying it, at least insinuates that Obama isn’t up to his job. This is the Obama presidency’s season of buyer’s remorse.

All presidents have to live through them.  They don’t necessarily signal the onset of winter in a one-term presidency. Bill Clinton was widely regarded by Democrats as in way over his head during the first two years of his presidency only to be hailed as some kind of political genius by the time he left office with the heads of Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole mounted on his wall. A lot depends on whether a president’s core supporters really have something to be remorseful about.

“Remorse” isn’t a matter simply of lamenting the way things are turning out. It’s a reproach one directs at one’s self for having made some sort of mistake given the information one had at the time. “Buyer’s” remorse in presidential politics can only be a matter of self-reproach for having bought into the wrong candidacy. So exactly what mistake did Democratic Obama supporters make in this instance? Not nominating John Edwards?

The answer can only be that Democrats are kicking themselves for not having listened to what Hillary Clinton was telling them during the presidential primaries. Recall that she never claimed her own governing agenda was materially different than Obama’s. Indeed, the only substantive difference I can remember is that Hillary supported, and Obama opposed, the individual insurance mandate that became an integral feature of Obama's health care reform. Hillary’s claim was that she visibly had, and he visibly lacked, the personal attributes of a successful president, above all, the experience and the fortitude to do the job.

Maybe this will refresh your recollection:

That’s quite a campaign spot. One measure of its effectiveness is that it almost has you believing an utterly ludicrous proposition. How exactly had Hillary been “tested” in a way that Obama hadn’t? Presumably that wasn’t a veiled reference to Monica Lewinsky’s White House internship. Granted, by the time this spot aired, Hillary had been a Senate backbencher for seven years to Obama’s three. Experience-wise, that’s not much of an advantage to begin with, and it was mitigated by the fact that Obama had served some time as a backbencher in the Illinois Senate before that. In any case, the difference in the duration of their respective legislative careers signified little in light of the fact that neither of them could claim a noteworthy legislative accomplishment.

Hillary’s claim to be appreciably more seasoned than Obama consisted almost entirely in the fact that she was married to, and performed mostly ceremonial duties in behalf of, someone who had been tested by the rigors of the presidency. That’s something, I guess. But imagine how you’d be received if you showed up for a job interview with your spouse’s job history as the most prominent entry on your own resume.

The fact that Hillary had the nerve to portray herself as an experienced hand just shows how drastically “experience” had been defined down in Democratic circles as of 2008. In any event, if Democrats blame themselves now for not be sufficiently impressed by her superior experience then, it’s the sort of mistake that time cures. Whatever else you say about him, Obama now has more hands-on experience discharging presidential duties than anyone eligible to run against him.  Maybe he's getting the hang of being president after a few years in office like Bill Clinton did.

Democrats’ acute disappointment with how the Obama presidency is playing out is subjecting them to a lot of cognitive dissonance. How, they ask themselves, can this be happening given the purity of our motives, the depth of our insight into public affairs, and the patent moral and intellectual inferiority of our political opponents? Blaming Obama personally, and taking themselves to task only for giving him the chance to let them down, is the least unsettling answer there is.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's strange for you to say that Obama now has more hands-on experience with presidential duties than anyone eligible to run against him.

How about the fact that he's so bad at it! Experience for experience sake is not the point. The point is that his lack of experience leading anything other than his own campaign and having no idealogy is what has put him in the position he's in: weak, ineffective, empty-headed, etc.

You cannot say that about all of his opponents.