Commentary Magazine


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The Campaign Was the Easy Part

Citing the addition of Rahm Emanuel and a spate of leaks, Noam Scheiber asks: “Is Obama’s militantly disciplined campaign becoming your standard messy presidency?” The answer? Of course. No presidency can be as focused as a campaign. Campaigns have a single goal–election–and, in comparison to an actual administration, a minuscule group of decision makers.

The question itself suggests that Scheiber, like so many else in the media, bought into the notion that running the Obama campaign was analogous to the tasks of overseeing a sprawling administration, hiring hundreds of key players and thousands of lesser ones, and making hard policy choices. That’s silly, of course.

The line that his campaign constituted executive experience was a convenient bit of spin to deflect the concerns about Obama’s lack of executive record. But the two activities — campaigning and governing — are, of course, fundamentally different. If in doubt, study the Carter and Bush 43 experiences in both.  And take the financial meltdown. Obama “rose to the occasion” by doing nothing, looking thoughtful, and allowing his opponent’s frenzied reaction to discredit him as a trustworthy steward of the economy. But looking thoughtful won’t do good for much once Obama is sworn in. Indeed, the quintessential Obama qualities — a well-cultivated ambiguity and the ability to maintain the hopes and allegiance of groups with fundamentally conflicting interests and goals – may be counterproductive once in the Presidency.

That is not to say that Obama won’t or can’t be an effective President. But if he is, it will have little to do with the skills and successes we observed during the campaign.