Thursday, August 25, 2011

Presidential "Competence"

This Wall Street Journal op-ed from Mort Zuckerman is the sort of thing you start seeing when a president is in political trouble. After reciting the usual litany of bad economic facts, he gets to the money graph and then delivers a parting shot (my emphasis):
“It is no surprise that many have begun to doubt the president's leadership qualities. J.P. Morgan calls it the ‘competency crisis.’ The president is not seen fighting for his own concrete goals, nor finding the right allies, especially leaders of business big or small. Instead, his latent hostility to the business community has provoked a mutual response of disrespect. This is lamentable given the unique role that small business especially plays in creating jobs. . . .

“Like many Americans who supported him, I long for a triple-A president to run a triple-A country.”
You have to distinguish the political import of the fact that a guy like Zuckerman is saying such things from the intellectual import of what he’s saying. The political import is probably substantial; the intellectual import, I submit, is approximately zero.

Zuckerman’s opinions are prominently displayed in the WSJ because he made enough money in real estate to buy various other media outlets that he has used to publicize his own political opinions. That makes him a card-carrying member of the class of socially recognized “winners,” a position that is widely assumed to confer intellectual authority upon him.  A lot of people seem to be impressed when a certified “winner” excommunicates a sitting president from the club, even when the “winner” insinuating that the president is a “loser” has Donald Trump’s well-earned reputation for saying stupid things as an instrument of self-promotion. Zuckerman, a reliable purveyor of conventional wisdom, isn’t known for saying stupid things. So let’s agree that it’s an especially bad sign for Obama that he's being personally disparaged on the record by someone of Zuckerman's stature.

Yet what exactly is Zuckerman saying when he impugns Obama’s competence? Calling someone “incompetent” implies an adverse comparison between his job-related performance and that of someone else who's visibly up to doing the job satisfactorily. So when anyone insinuates that Obama’s an incompetent president, you have to ask: compared to whom and with respect to what standards of satisfactory performance? If Zuckerman or the honchos at J.P. Morgan have any answers to those questions, however, they're keeping them to themselves.

Nothing unusual there. Take what is widely considered the most spectacular recent example of presidential incompetence, George W. Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina. To people already distressed by the fact that no WMDs had turned up in Iraq and the occupation was going badly, telling Brownie what a great job he was doing proved, once and for all, that Bush was in over his head.

But compared to whom or with respect to what? Dubya looked like Bill Gates next to the mayor of New Orleans or the governor of Louisiana, the public officials with primary jurisdiction over the New Orleans relief effort. And compared to what prior relief effort, under which president, was the federal response to Katrina plainly inadequate? As far as I know, there can be no compelling answer to that question because the federal government had never undertaken a domestic rescue mission of a comparable scale and urgency. It makes as much sense to say that the federal government's Katrina-response was unprecedentedly effective as the opposite.

I conclude that calling Bush an incompetent was just a way of saying that you were sick and tired of his presidency for any number of other reasons. It may have been psychologically gratifying to turn your dissatisfaction into an indictment of Bush’s person.  But it was an intellectually evasive way of letting off a little steam without having to say with any precision what he did, or was doing, wrong.

It seems to me pretty much the same thing applies to Zuckerman’s rant against Obama. Yes the economy sucks, but compared to what? The closest domestic precedent, the national economy of the Great Depression? Or the state of any other comparable economy today? Yes Obama hasn’t delivered the macro-economic results he promised, but what head of an elected western government has? And what, exactly,  would a competent president do that Obama isn’t doing? 

You'll notice that Zuckerman isn’t saying.

No comments: