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Explaining Politics to the Political Scientists

Julia Azari, an assistant political science professor at Marquette, has a column in Politico Magazine that begins with a rather simple premise: President Obama’s conservative critics sometimes call him too weak and sometimes call him too strong. Isn’t this, Professor Azari asks, contradictory? Specifically, the question is centered on the fact that conservatives think Obama’s foreign policy is too timid, but his domestic policy is heavyhanded, overly bureaucratized and centralized, and sometimes unconstitutional and antidemocratic.

Azari wonders why that is. She’ll be cheered to know there is a very easy answer to this, and it’s one nearly anyone could answer: this is precisely how our system of government was designed. That is, the president is the commander in chief, and has far more latitude to conduct foreign policy than domestic policy. Therefore, when he tries to institute liberal experiments on domestic policy, he runs into the United States Congress, a coequal branch of the government. When he doesn’t get his way, he can be tempted to go around Congress.

Azari suspects this is the answer–that the Constitution has something to do with it, and several paragraphs in answers her own question:

Being seen as simultaneously too strong and too weak is a structural condition for presidents. The framers of the Constitution debated about how to design an executive strong enough to protect the country, but still constrained by the rule of law. Writing from the vantage point of the mid-twentieth century, the political scientist Richard Neustadt argued that when presidents resort to unilateral “command,” it means their efforts to persuade others have failed. In this sense, it would certainly be possible for the president to both lack the necessary strength to govern and to have the capacity to use the powers of the office in excessive and even constitutionally questionable ways– in both foreign and domestic policy.

But with regard to Obama, Azari quickly rejects the obviously correct answer because it would make Obama’s opponents sound so reasonable. So Azari must venture bravely forth, beyond the safe compound of political science and into the fire swamp of irrational, malicious gibberish:

Instead, there’s a case to be made that this dual narrative is specific to the Obama presidency. Subliminal and not-so-subliminal messages about Obama’s nationality and masculinity are rife in these critiques. Comparing Putin and Obama, Sarah Palin famously commented that Obama wears “mom jeans.” On matters abroad, the implication—as with the Bergdahl case—is often that Obama demonstrates excessive sympathy for foreigners at the expense of American interests. Dictatorship narratives often include either Soviet or Nazi imagery. The factor tying the two narratives together is the idea that Obama’s very loyalties are suspect. In other words, dictatorship and weakness are both logical extensions of the claim, prevalent in some conservative circles, that Obama is not quite one of us and not an appropriate symbol of American identity.

Now, you might be tempted to steer Azari back to the land of the lucid. Republicans have accused other Democratic presidents in the past of being weak on national security, and Barack Obama himself ran–twice–on a platform that consisted, essentially, of accusing his Republican opponent of being too chicken to invade nuclear-armed Islamist countries in Central Asia. So, no, I don’t think it’s the “mom jeans” thing.

Nor is this new. Was Truman–a Democrat, by the way–accusing Eisenhower of being a feminine foreigner when he mocked Ike’s attitude toward the Soviet Union as all talk? One thinks not. (Ike was president at the time, too; Truman had already left office.) The supposed contradiction of weak on foreign affairs and statist at home is not only not mutually exclusive, as Azari seems to realize, but not unique to Obama either. Just as Azari names conservative pundits who make both accusations of Obama, she can easily dig up liberal pundits accusing George W. Bush of–in the same monologue–being a fascist and being stupid and un-American and guided by the political doctrines of our enemies.

There’s been something of a cottage industry for liberal institutions to believe–against all evidence and history–that there’s something unprecedented (as the president might say) about the partisan rancor aimed at Barack Obama. What is actually unique is the aggressiveness of the defensive posture the media and academy have taken when it comes to criticism of this president.



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