Commentary Magazine


The Next President’s Inevitable Mistakes

Today’s Washington Post includes two large headlines above the fold: “Obama Is Under Fire Over Panetta Selection”  and “Senators Turn Burris Away at Capitol.”

According to the first story,

current and former intelligence officials expressed sharp resentment over Obama’s choice of Leon E. Panetta as CIA director and suggested that the agency suffers from incompetent leadership and low morale. “People who suggest morale is low don’t have a clue about what’s going on now,” said CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield, citing recent personnel reforms under Director Michael V. Hayden.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence were still stewing over Obama not consulting them on the choice before it was leaked Monday and continued to question Panetta’s intelligence experience. Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. acknowledged that the transition team had made a “mistake” in not consulting or even notifying congressional leaders, and Obama telephoned committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and her predecessor, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), yesterday to apologize.

…. The Panetta uproar starts Obama off on the wrong foot with the committee and intelligence professionals and was the latest glitch in what has largely been an unusually smooth and carefully choreographed transition.

… Although several top CIA officials who have interacted with Obama since the election expressed admiration for his grasp of the issues, the transition process has clearly left a bad taste. One senior official said that “the process was completely opaque” and that the agency was neither consulted nor informed.

The second story reports

[Roland] Burris’s single-minded push may yet succeed. Senate Democrats, once sharply opposed to allowing Burris to be seated because he was appointed by embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), are now considering allowing him to serve as a way to end a confrontation that could drag on for weeks and distract from what they hope will be an end to a decade of gridlock on Capitol Hill. One idea being considered, Democratic officials said, is allowing Burris to be seated if he agrees not to run for election in 2010, allowing the party to recruit another candidate to defend the seat (Burris has lost multiple statewide races in Illinois).

Sen. Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) plan to meet with Burris today on Capitol Hill, and the two leaders are undoubtedly eager to defuse a situation in which their resistance to the appointment could alienate black voters.

These stories come in the wake of the withdrawal by Bill Richardson to be Secretary of Commerce, due to a grand jury investigation that had been focusing on Richardson’s gubernatorial office and a possible “pay-to-play” arrangement. Another headline in the Post put it this way:

Richardson, Obama Teams Trade Blame

So Barack Obama has not yet been sworn in and the 111th Congress has been in power for all of a day, and both are beginning to slip on banana peels. All of a sudden the vaunted Obama team, which made hardly any unforced errors during the campaign, has stirred up opposition within the intelligence community, offended key power players on Capitol Hill, and experienced an embarrassing transition mistake which should have been avoided – all within a matter of days. And within a matter of days, Democrats will have to back down and allow Roland Burris to be seated.

I make these observations to underscore a simple point: governing is more challenging than criticizing those who govern.

A brief anecdote: The Bush Administration was faced with a controversy over the Dubai Port Authority. At issue was the sale of port management businesses in six major U.S. seaports to a company based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and whether such a sale would compromise port security. I recall seeing several former members of the Clinton Administration on television, all wondering how such a thing could possibly have occurred and criticizing the Bush Administration for making a stupid, unnecessary error.

As it happened, I was at the time reading John Harris’s book on the Clinton Administration , The Survivor, which opens with a section recalling how poorly President Clinton’s transition was managed – from reneging on his pledge to cut middle class taxes, to his reversal of policy on Haitian refugees, to the implosion of the nominations of Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood to be Attorney General, to attempting to revoke the military’s ban on gays. The irony wasn’t lost on me. One couldn’t help but wonder why former Clinton staffers now harshly criticizing the Bush Administration had not acted more competently during their own.

I understand this is a ritual. Those out of power always believe they will do things far better, more intelligently, and more competently than those in power. And obviously some Administrations are better at execution than others. But all incoming Administrations make mistakes, from important ones like the Bay of Pigs to more minor ones like promoting (and then backing away from) new policies for the military relating to gays.

In the current iteration, the Obama campaign specifically, and Democrats generally, have gotten a lot of mileage out of turning the Bush presidency into a punching bag, trying to reduce it to a series of mishandled incidents, from Hurricane Katrina and the failure of intelligence on Iraq down to the Harriet Miers nomination and other things.

The reality, of course, is very much different than all that. It’s not that mistakes weren’t made; over the course of eight years, lots of mistakes are inevitable. It’s that really significant achievements – from tax cuts to pro-life policies to seating two outstanding Supreme Court justices to education reform to introducing market reforms for health care to the surge in Iraq to jihadism in retreat – are ignored or downplayed.

What Obama and his team are learning during the transition, and what they will learn in a big way once they assume office, is that slip-ups are easy to make when you are tasked with governing the most powerful nation on earth and overseeing a huge federal bureaucracy. Once a mistake is made and media attention focuses on it for days, any commentator can sit in front of a camera and scratch their head that this or that thing was allowed to happen. Why wasn’t this problem spotted sooner? Why wasn’t the wound cauterized faster? Why was this nomination ever approved? Why isn’t this country doing more to support us in the war on terror? Why wasn’t that war (say, Israel v. Hamas) averted?

This cast of (critical) mind is particularly true, but not only true, of commentators who have never served in government or business and have done nothing but opine – some as theater critics, others as hosts of sports highlight shows – for most of their adult lives. It all looks quite easy to do when commenting from the safety and distance of a television studio or a blog post or a column in a news weekly.

I’m not asking for a moratorium on criticism or arguing that criticisms are unwarranted in every instance. That needs to be determined by facts and circumstances. And certainly we should have vigorous debates over the direction of policy.  But I do think we’d all be better served if we maintained perspective and reasonable expectations on what any President and his Administration can achieve and cut them some slack when their execution isn’t perfect or they stumble along the way. That goes for those of us who didn’t vote for Barack Obama and will likely oppose many of his initiatives. We should extend to him and his team some of the grace and fair-mindedness that hasn’t always been show to others in the past.

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