Commentary Magazine


Topic: inexperienced president

The Obama Parlor Game: What’s Wrong with Him?

Al Hunt is the latest participant in the “What the heck is wrong with this presidency?” parlor game. He reviews the bidding in the Rahm Emanuel vs. People Less Smart Than Rahm controversy. But that’s beside the point, says Hunt:

Yet there is a larger self-created problem for which Emanuel and [David] Axelrod are only partly to blame. Go back to the remarkable Obama campaign of 2007-2008. More than any of its rivals, it had a strategic sense of what it was, where it wanted to go.

This provided a shield against setbacks: losing the New Hampshire primary, the candidate’s careless remarks about rural Pennsylvania voters or even the incendiary remarks of Obama’s pastor. These became speed bumps in the strategic narrative.

That is missing in the Obama presidency. Too often it seems situational rather than strategic, reactive more than proactive. Thus setbacks, from minor ones, such as the handling of the Christmas Day bomber, to major ones, like the loss of the Senate seat in Massachusetts, throw team Obama off stride, and leave voters confused.

Well, it’s arguable whether the Christmas Day bombing was a “minor” setback or a sign of a systemic failure to understand our enemy and devise appropriate responses to wage a war against Islamic fundamentalists. But Hunt insists there’s a “big picture” deficiency here. He sums up: “Most important, however, is whether the Obama administration can emulate the Obama campaign and fashion a coherent strategy for governing.” Well, that seems to be closer to the nub of the problem.

Frankly, Obama has a big picture. It’s just the wrong one — a statist spend-a-thon that seeks to reorient the balance between private and public sectors, grow the scope of the federal government, and do it all without popular support. As for the governance problem, however, Hunt is right that neither Obama nor his flock of supposedly smart people are good at devising, negotiating, and selling policy. They are at heart pols who peaked during a cynical campaign in which they sold Obama to the public as something he was not (e.g. moderate, prepared, pro-Israel). But then it’s nearly impossible to govern from the far Left of the political spectrum in a Center-Right country.

Now the Obami are trapped in a thicket of overstuffed legislation and beset upon by a public chagrined to find that Obama isn’t what he was cracked up to be. So the infighting starts. The backstabbing goes public. The excuse-mongering revs up. All that, however, stems from a central difficulty: a erudite but inexperienced president with a surplus of hubris is trying to impose a radical vision on an unwilling populace. It’s bound to fail. And so far, it is.

Al Hunt is the latest participant in the “What the heck is wrong with this presidency?” parlor game. He reviews the bidding in the Rahm Emanuel vs. People Less Smart Than Rahm controversy. But that’s beside the point, says Hunt:

Yet there is a larger self-created problem for which Emanuel and [David] Axelrod are only partly to blame. Go back to the remarkable Obama campaign of 2007-2008. More than any of its rivals, it had a strategic sense of what it was, where it wanted to go.

This provided a shield against setbacks: losing the New Hampshire primary, the candidate’s careless remarks about rural Pennsylvania voters or even the incendiary remarks of Obama’s pastor. These became speed bumps in the strategic narrative.

That is missing in the Obama presidency. Too often it seems situational rather than strategic, reactive more than proactive. Thus setbacks, from minor ones, such as the handling of the Christmas Day bomber, to major ones, like the loss of the Senate seat in Massachusetts, throw team Obama off stride, and leave voters confused.

Well, it’s arguable whether the Christmas Day bombing was a “minor” setback or a sign of a systemic failure to understand our enemy and devise appropriate responses to wage a war against Islamic fundamentalists. But Hunt insists there’s a “big picture” deficiency here. He sums up: “Most important, however, is whether the Obama administration can emulate the Obama campaign and fashion a coherent strategy for governing.” Well, that seems to be closer to the nub of the problem.

Frankly, Obama has a big picture. It’s just the wrong one — a statist spend-a-thon that seeks to reorient the balance between private and public sectors, grow the scope of the federal government, and do it all without popular support. As for the governance problem, however, Hunt is right that neither Obama nor his flock of supposedly smart people are good at devising, negotiating, and selling policy. They are at heart pols who peaked during a cynical campaign in which they sold Obama to the public as something he was not (e.g. moderate, prepared, pro-Israel). But then it’s nearly impossible to govern from the far Left of the political spectrum in a Center-Right country.

Now the Obami are trapped in a thicket of overstuffed legislation and beset upon by a public chagrined to find that Obama isn’t what he was cracked up to be. So the infighting starts. The backstabbing goes public. The excuse-mongering revs up. All that, however, stems from a central difficulty: a erudite but inexperienced president with a surplus of hubris is trying to impose a radical vision on an unwilling populace. It’s bound to fail. And so far, it is.

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Cheney Once Again

Former Vice President Dick Cheney and Leslie Gelb are on the same page regarding the president’s foreign-policy performance – specifically his meandering, irresolute first year, in which he has proved his toughest critics right. In an interview with Politico, Cheney gives voice to what a broad range of observers (both domestic and foreign) now think of Obama’s no-longer-new presidency:

“I begin to get nervous when I see the commander in chief making decisions apparently for what I would describe as small ‘p’ political reasons, where he’s trying to balance off different competing groups in society,” Cheney said. “Every time he delays, defers, debates, changes his position, it begins to raise questions: Is the commander in chief really behind what they’ve been asked to do?” … Those folks … begin to look for ways to accommodate their enemies. … They’re worried the United States isn’t going to be there much longer and the bad guys are.”

In Cheney’s view, this is an inexperienced president who is simply not up for the job (“Sometimes I have the feeling that they’re just figuring that out,” he says of Afghanistan war planning and the lessons of Iraq) and who embraces a radical worldview that rejects American exceptionalism (“I am increasingly convinced that he’s not as committed to or as wedded to that concept as most of the presidents I’ve known, Republican or Democrat”).

It is December, and in less than a year Cheney now represents a good deal of mainstream thinking, both in the Beltway and among ordinary Americans. That’s how far we’ve come. Meanwhile, Obama is increasingly seen as ideologically misguided and temperamentally at a loss to deal with the plethora of international challenges, which will only increase as a worldwide audience takes in his haphazard performance.

Whether it is the mullahs in Iran or democracy advocates living in despotic regimes, Obama has projected an image that he must, if his presidency is to be successful, reverse. Where he has appeared naive, he must now show that he is savvy. Where he has shown aversion to hard power, he must now demonstrate his bona fides as a wartime commander. And it is harder, terribly so, now that he must convince players on the world stage (both friends and foes) that he really, honestly, after all does mean it.

Cheney has consistently called out the administration for its poor judgment (e.g., on Guantanamo, the CIA) and lousy execution. Other conservatives who wish to lead the opposition have followed suit and will, I suspect, continue the lines of attack Cheney has outlined. But the real issue is whether the administration has internalized the substance of what Cheney is saying (echoed by columnists and pundits whom the administration may find more palatable). If so, there is perhaps time to reverse the trajectory of this presidency, and specifically the entire Obama approach to foreign policy. If not, it will be a very rocky three years.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney and Leslie Gelb are on the same page regarding the president’s foreign-policy performance – specifically his meandering, irresolute first year, in which he has proved his toughest critics right. In an interview with Politico, Cheney gives voice to what a broad range of observers (both domestic and foreign) now think of Obama’s no-longer-new presidency:

“I begin to get nervous when I see the commander in chief making decisions apparently for what I would describe as small ‘p’ political reasons, where he’s trying to balance off different competing groups in society,” Cheney said. “Every time he delays, defers, debates, changes his position, it begins to raise questions: Is the commander in chief really behind what they’ve been asked to do?” … Those folks … begin to look for ways to accommodate their enemies. … They’re worried the United States isn’t going to be there much longer and the bad guys are.”

In Cheney’s view, this is an inexperienced president who is simply not up for the job (“Sometimes I have the feeling that they’re just figuring that out,” he says of Afghanistan war planning and the lessons of Iraq) and who embraces a radical worldview that rejects American exceptionalism (“I am increasingly convinced that he’s not as committed to or as wedded to that concept as most of the presidents I’ve known, Republican or Democrat”).

It is December, and in less than a year Cheney now represents a good deal of mainstream thinking, both in the Beltway and among ordinary Americans. That’s how far we’ve come. Meanwhile, Obama is increasingly seen as ideologically misguided and temperamentally at a loss to deal with the plethora of international challenges, which will only increase as a worldwide audience takes in his haphazard performance.

Whether it is the mullahs in Iran or democracy advocates living in despotic regimes, Obama has projected an image that he must, if his presidency is to be successful, reverse. Where he has appeared naive, he must now show that he is savvy. Where he has shown aversion to hard power, he must now demonstrate his bona fides as a wartime commander. And it is harder, terribly so, now that he must convince players on the world stage (both friends and foes) that he really, honestly, after all does mean it.

Cheney has consistently called out the administration for its poor judgment (e.g., on Guantanamo, the CIA) and lousy execution. Other conservatives who wish to lead the opposition have followed suit and will, I suspect, continue the lines of attack Cheney has outlined. But the real issue is whether the administration has internalized the substance of what Cheney is saying (echoed by columnists and pundits whom the administration may find more palatable). If so, there is perhaps time to reverse the trajectory of this presidency, and specifically the entire Obama approach to foreign policy. If not, it will be a very rocky three years.

Read Less




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