Commentary Magazine


We Only Expected Competence

It somehow has never dawned on the Obama devotees who like to cite the administration’s “inherited mess” that this president’s failures don’t exactly reflect the overcautiousness of a leader constrained by a crisis. Taking over one-sixth of the private sector in an unintelligible health-care scheme is not an indication of tied hands; it’s a demonstration of unbridled recklessness. So too is dumping unprecedented billions into a liberal wish-list and calling it a stimulus. And so is cooking up financial reform that makes growth impossible and charges responsible banks with the task of bailing out irresponsible ones.

But it is Barack Obama’s most devoted supporters who should be most offended by the White House’s newest spin on the president’s shortcomings. Obama, we are now told, could never have lived up to people’s expectations of him.

Of the two excuses, the second is the more ignoble. The first merely passes the buck to another politician; the second places the blame at the feet of everyone else.  We’re not just talking about Americans, either. On Thursday, the European Commission’s president José Manuel Barroso told an interviewer that he was disappointed in the EU-America relationship under Obama. The administration’s response: “Senior U.S. figures said Obama could never live up to Europe’s sky-high expectations.”

I’m sure that will put transatlantic relations on the road to recovery in no time. But more to the point, it was candidate Barack Obama who vowed to accomplish the impossible. He said he would close Guantanamo Bay, lower the sea levels, end partisanship, elevate America’s standing in the world, and forge a new global order built on common humanity. With the exception of the laughably deluded, most everyone else’s expectations were fairly modest.

Americans, liberal and conservative, expected a president who could tell an interviewer what was actually in the biggest piece of legislation we’ve seen since FDR; one who would consider our employment crisis his first priority, not a nuisance standing in the way of a predetermined agenda; a leader who was unequivocal about military decisions, be they to escalate or drawdown; a statesman who didn’t immediately alienate our allies.

And as for those allies, Europe wanted an American president who would acknowledge the historic and ideological bonds between liberal democracies; one who wouldn’t preach financial prodigality while the continent adopted emergency austerity measures; one who would, in the words of Nicolas Sarkozy, “live in a real world, not a virtual world,” and who would consequently place the threat of a nuclear Iran before the pet cause of non-proliferation.

These bare minimums — our own and Europe’s — don’t even speak to an expectation of excellence, let alone a fantasy of “sky-high” miracle-working. They constitute a simple wish for competence in the most powerful office in the world.

Even if Obama didn’t hold that job, his excuse would be odd. Imagine a man who is up for a sales job at a company in crisis. He tells his prospective boss that not only will he rescue sales but he’ll also lower costs, turn out a better product, get the competition to cooperate instead of compete, raise wages, improve the food in the company commissary, and redecorate the offices to boot. This man then gets hired. For a year, sales continue to lag, and everything else stays the same. The new employee explains that the guy who used to have his job left behind an unconscionable mess, which has made it very hard to do the things he had promised in the interview phase. After a year and a half, sales hit an historic low, the product is being recalled, competitors have formed a guild and are pulling ahead, everyone at the company has taken a salary hit, a few people have gotten food poisoning in the commissary, and the offices are more dilapidated than ever. On top of that, vendors can’t get him on the phone, he’s insulted his co-workers, and he’s taken more vacation time than the company allows. The boss finally asks him what’s gone wrong. “I could never have lived up to your expectations,” the man says.

Looking ahead to midterm elections, Obama recently told a Kansas City audience, “You’re going to face a choice in November and I want everybody to be very clear about what that choice is – the choice between the policies that got us into this mess in the first place and the policies that are getting us out of this mess.” Which mess is that? The stimulus mess? The ObamaCare mess? The financial-regulation mess? The European-allies mess? The Israel-relationship mess? The Karzai-relationship mess? The civilian-military mess? We’re facing a lot of messes that don’t have a thing to do with conservative policies. Even the housing-loan policies that led to the bust and recession are liberal policies, whether or not Bush embraced them.

The administration is now telling Americans not to expect much and to keep Democrats in office. “Despair and stasis” doesn’t quite have the ring of a successful campaign slogan, does it?

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