Commentary Magazine


Topic: Paul Volker

The Inactive President

It’s been quite a week. Democrats are fleeing for retirement. The president has spent days in meetings with national-security advisers and fending off claims that he does not take his job as commander in chief seriously. The Republican Senate candidate in Massachusetts has the momentum. And C-SPAN, joined by the rest of the media, is bashing the Obami for reneging on their promise to televise the health-care negotiations. Who’d have thought that this is what the Obama presidency would look like?

Obama and his party seem to be careering from one political debacle to the next, waiting for the next high-profile incumbent to drop out and bracing themselves for the next round of criticism, which is sure to follow another in a series of damage-control statements. The “No Drama Obama” has been replaced by the Perils of Pauline presidency. (Or is it the Keystone Kops?) The aura of competence has been shattered, replaced by the realization that the president finds governance very, very hard and has accomplished quite little despite large congressional majorities.

It’s ironic that Obama most likely sealed his election win during those fateful days in September 2008 when the financial sector seemed to melt before our eyes. Sen. John McCain was the frantic one then. (The campaign is off! It’s on!) Obama did virtually nothing — merely staging thoughtful meetings with Paul Volker and Warren Buffett and saying rather little. That, with the help of a fawning media, was enough to convince a majority of voters that he was good in a crisis, calm and reflective. What he wasn’t then — and what he has not been since taking office — was assertive, bold, decisive, or innovative. He just had a lot of meetings.

And that’s what he does now — have meetings (endlessly) on Afghanistan, the Christmas Day bombing, jobs, and the rest. There is a professorial or perhaps bureaucratic quality to it, as if the meetings themselves were the solution or the appearance of thoughtful discussion would soothe the public. But that’s what gets you through a campaign. Now, when he’s invested with the full power and responsibility of the presidency, he doesn’t appear to be leading or setting policy. Rather, he’s buffeted by one or another crisis.

His policies may be wrongheaded and may have put off many voters. Certainly that’s part of what ails him and what’s caused his poll numbers to plummet. But it’s his persona that is especially disconcerting. There is a void, an absence of resolute leadership. It’s not enough to seem calm and have meetings. He needs to do something. Right now, what he’s doing mainly is reacting to events and hoping the public and media will calm down. And that’s not what we expect of our president.

George W. Bush was mocked when he referred to himself as the “Decider.” But come to think of it, that’s what we could use — a no-nonsense and decisive leader who can (as Bush did on the Iraq war) see when policy has gone awry, fire advisers, and communicate complete determination to achieve his aims. We could use some of that now. And fewer meetings.

It’s been quite a week. Democrats are fleeing for retirement. The president has spent days in meetings with national-security advisers and fending off claims that he does not take his job as commander in chief seriously. The Republican Senate candidate in Massachusetts has the momentum. And C-SPAN, joined by the rest of the media, is bashing the Obami for reneging on their promise to televise the health-care negotiations. Who’d have thought that this is what the Obama presidency would look like?

Obama and his party seem to be careering from one political debacle to the next, waiting for the next high-profile incumbent to drop out and bracing themselves for the next round of criticism, which is sure to follow another in a series of damage-control statements. The “No Drama Obama” has been replaced by the Perils of Pauline presidency. (Or is it the Keystone Kops?) The aura of competence has been shattered, replaced by the realization that the president finds governance very, very hard and has accomplished quite little despite large congressional majorities.

It’s ironic that Obama most likely sealed his election win during those fateful days in September 2008 when the financial sector seemed to melt before our eyes. Sen. John McCain was the frantic one then. (The campaign is off! It’s on!) Obama did virtually nothing — merely staging thoughtful meetings with Paul Volker and Warren Buffett and saying rather little. That, with the help of a fawning media, was enough to convince a majority of voters that he was good in a crisis, calm and reflective. What he wasn’t then — and what he has not been since taking office — was assertive, bold, decisive, or innovative. He just had a lot of meetings.

And that’s what he does now — have meetings (endlessly) on Afghanistan, the Christmas Day bombing, jobs, and the rest. There is a professorial or perhaps bureaucratic quality to it, as if the meetings themselves were the solution or the appearance of thoughtful discussion would soothe the public. But that’s what gets you through a campaign. Now, when he’s invested with the full power and responsibility of the presidency, he doesn’t appear to be leading or setting policy. Rather, he’s buffeted by one or another crisis.

His policies may be wrongheaded and may have put off many voters. Certainly that’s part of what ails him and what’s caused his poll numbers to plummet. But it’s his persona that is especially disconcerting. There is a void, an absence of resolute leadership. It’s not enough to seem calm and have meetings. He needs to do something. Right now, what he’s doing mainly is reacting to events and hoping the public and media will calm down. And that’s not what we expect of our president.

George W. Bush was mocked when he referred to himself as the “Decider.” But come to think of it, that’s what we could use — a no-nonsense and decisive leader who can (as Bush did on the Iraq war) see when policy has gone awry, fire advisers, and communicate complete determination to achieve his aims. We could use some of that now. And fewer meetings.

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