If he wasn’t such an obviously intelligent and educated man, you could be excused for thinking Barack Obama was a little, well, dumb.
How else to explain his fast-accumulating pile of policy failures — not bad policies, destructive policies, or ill-conceived policies, mind you, but simply failed policies, in the most literal sense of ideas attempted, but never implemented. Rarely have we seen a president as flat-out bad at getting his will done as this one. If incompetence has any useful definition, Barack Obama is it.
Last week saw Guantanamo Bay re-enter the headlines with news that more than 100 of the prison’s 166 inmates are now engaged in some manner of hunger strike, with some so weak from protest they’ve had to be painfully force-fed. Such showy acts of passive resistance were an embarrassing reminder of the fact that four years in, the President has still failed to do the thing he originally promised to do on “day one,” namely shut the place down. But at a press conference last Tuesday, Obama seemed blasé at best. I’m gonna get my people to “examine every option that we have administratively to try to deal with this issue,” he said, which I guess begs the question as to what exactly the White House had been doing previously.
Then there’s gun control, the issue which the President used the full force of his bully pulpit to promote in the wake of the Aurora and Sandy Hook massacres, passionately extolling Congress that America’s victims “deserve a vote.” Well, on April 17 the Senate gave them a vote, and despite it being on a matter of extreme moderate inoffensiveness — expanded background checks for gun show customers and internet shoppers — it still went down. Just like the plan to avoid the draconian sequestration spending cuts went down. And the jobs bill went down. And the DREAM Act went down. And perhaps the immigration bill, too. At this point for it to go in any other direction would certainly be bucking a trend.
When Barack Obama first ran for president in 2008, the critique was frequently raised that a not-even-one-term senator was perhaps not entirely qualified to run a country of 300 million. He had zero years of executive experience and less than five as a Washington resident, and measured by lack of titles alone, you’d have to go all the way back to Dwight Eisenhower to find a president with a thinner resume in the world of government (and even Ike had that whole World War II thing).
Bah, rebutted the Obamanauts, what our guy lacks in job credits he more than makes up for in vision. If anything, a lack of Washington experience will merely make his passions less diluted, his goals less compromised by years of craggy insider cynicism.
And perhaps that’s all been true. The things Obama wants, at least, from a path to citizenship for America’s 12 million illegal immigrants to same-sex marriage to cap-and-trade, are ideas undeniably aggressive in their liberalism. When the man speaks, as he did in his sharply ideological second inaugural, it’s impossible to deny the scope of his ambition.
But politics is still the art of the possible, and achieving the possible in the capital of the world’s second-largest democracy requires more than just good intentions. It requires cutthroat strategizing, sophisticated reconnaissance, and a skillful mastery of the sausage machinery of law making that can’t easily be gained from, as Hillary Clinton used to say, “on the job training.”
Thus, while Obama is quick to blame the Congress for his government’s pronounced inability to get what it wants (I resent the implication, said the President, that “my job is to somehow get them to behave”), when we look at the most successful presidents of living memory — Clinton, Reagan, Nixon, and Johnson — all were notable for their creative strategies of legislative manoeuvring. They went to the Hill and forged alliances with individual senators and representatives. They cajoled, flattered, arm-twisted, schemed and made deals. They compromised, triangulated, and gave and took.
The Obama strategy, in contrast, is to simply run ideas up the proverbial flagpole and then take great offense when no one salutes. Of the budgets the President has submitted since taking office, two out of three received ostentatious zero votes from Congress. The White House’s instance that an assault weapons ban be part of any post-Newtown gun control bill was tone-deaf in its overreach, and helped poison the well for pro-gun legislators to seriously consider the watered-down compromise that followed. Obamacare, despite baring his name, was largely crafted by Nancy Pelosi and the congressional Democrats, who indeed actively resented the White House for its lack of leadership at the time.
Obviously, Republican obstructionism in the House and Senate bears a lot of blame for Obama’s marked record of not-doing, but it would be hardly accurate to assert that the modern GOP, Tea Party-infused or not, is really so much worse than any Congressional opposition of years past. It’s easy to forget that Republican Clinton-hate was every bit as fanatical and foaming as modern Obama-hate, complete with elaborate conspiracy theories (Vince Foster was murdered!) and diabolical allegations (the President assassinates his enemies!). Lyndon Johnson passed the most radical racial equality legislation in American history at a time when Congress still possessed a sizeable caucus of open, unapologetic racists and segregationists — and that was just in his own Democratic Party. For his part, Richard Nixon’s term didn’t overlap with a single year in which either chamber of the legislature was controlled by Republicans.
In fairness, I guess it’s true that Obama does have a strategy of sorts, it’s just the wrong one. He’s had polite dinners and lunches and summits galore with Congressional Republicans, and has uttered many-a hectoring speech on the need for everyone to mind their manners and stop being so stubborn. He’s routinely appealed to optimism and emotion, and tried to embarrass and shame those who don’t appreciate the urgency of his causes. He’s even outright surrendered now and then. But the results speak for themselves.
Many years ago, I remember reading a reporter’s summary of a video montage shown at the 2000 Democratic National Convention. It featured a chronological mashup of all the Democratic presidents of the second half of the 20th Century, beginning with Franklin Roosevelt and ending with Bill Clinton. The appearances of these liberal icons generated wild cheers from the audience, noted the story, except for Jimmy Carter, who received only “polite applause.”
That, it seems, is the way American history records its presidents. There are those whose scope of deed and action guaranteed their greatness would always be uncomplicated and self-evident, and there are those who were nice and well-meaning, but ultimately too politically incompetent or strategically unskilled to leave much of a legacy. They are the men whose textbook biographies strain to describe how rejiggering this-or-that federal agency or signing some long-forgotten treaty were accomplishments deserving to share space with world wars and moon landings.
Barack Obama will be a polite applause president.