Paul Rahe: Is Obama a one-trick pony?

Hillsdale College Professor Paul Rahe writes:

I am not a great admirer of Peggy Noonan as a journalist. Most of the time, she aims at capturing a mood, and I generally find the lack of analysis and the sentimentalism so visible in her work offputting. There are, however, moments when she hits the ball out of the park, and she did so just a few days ago in The Wall Street Journal.
Noonan began by drawing attention to two articles published by establishment Democrats. In the first of these, which appeared on Politico, veteran commentator Elizabeth Drew reported,

While [Barack Obama] was abroad, there was a palpable sense at home of something gone wrong. A critical mass of influential people who once held big hopes for his presidency began to wonder whether they had misjudged the man. Most significant, these doubters now find themselves with a new reluctance to defend Obama at a phase of his presidency when he needs defenders more urgently than ever.
This is the price Obama has paid with his complicity and most likely his active participation, in the shabbiest episode of his presidency: The firing by leaks of White House counsel Gregory Craig, a well-respected Washington veteran and influential early supporter of Obama.
The people who are most aghast by the handling of the Craig departure can’t be dismissed by the White House as Republican partisans, or still-embittered Hillary Clinton supporters. They are not naïve activists who don’t understand that the exercise of power can be a rough business and that trade-offs and personal disappointments are inevitable. Instead, they are people, either in politics or close observers, who once held an unromantically high opinion of Obama. They were important to his rise, and are likely more important to the success or failure of his presidency than Obama or his distressingly insular and small-minded West Wing team appreciate.
The Craig embarrassment gives these people a new reason – not the first or only reason – to conclude that he wasn’t the person of integrity and even classiness they had thought, and, more fundamentally, that his ability to move people and actually lead a fractured and troubled country (the reason many preferred him over Hillary Clinton) is not what had been promised in the campaign.
This may seem like a lot to hang on a Washington personnel move. After all, intramural back-stabbing or making people fall guys when things go wrong (think Bill Clinton’s Defense Secretary Les Aspin after the disaster in Somalia) are not new to Washingtonians.
But Craig’s ouster did not occur in a vacuum. It served as a focal point to concerns that have been building for months that Obama wasn’t pressing for all that might be possible within the existing political constraints (all that one could ask of a president); that his presidential voice hadn’t fulfilled the hopes raised by his campaign voice (which had also taken him a while to find); that he hadn’t created a movement, as he had raised expectations that he would; that would be there to back him up and help him fulfill his promises.

Drew’s contention was not that Craig should have been kept. She acknowledged that, if Obama was unhappy with his performance, he should have been dropped. Her point was that it should not have been done in a shabby fashion by a series of leaks orchestrated by Obama’s enforcer Rahm Emanuel. As an Obama loyalist, Craig deserved a dignified departure.
Symptomatic of her larger worries is the following:

The incident underscored worries that several had held about the Obama White House for some time: that it was too tightly controlled and narrowly focused by the Chicago crowd; that it seemed from the outset to need an older, wiser head, someone with a bit more detachment.
The current crowd displays a certain impulsiveness and vindictiveness that do it no good – as in the silly war-let on Fox News that it is now trying to back out of. Even if Craig was making a hash of his job – and there’s no independent evidence of this – it just wasn’t smart to treat someone widely held in such high respect in this manner; once again, the impulsiveness backfired.
The replacing of Craig with Washington attorney Robert Bauer, Obama’s own attorney for years as well as counsel for the Democratic National Committee and the Obama campaign, further narrowed the White House circle just when it needed broadening, lowered the stature of the office, and choosing the president’s personal attorney for a position that calls for dispassionate judgment is hazardous. (Does anyone remember Alberto Gonzalez?)
The Obamas themselves hang tight with a small Chicago crowd. Yes, he talks to others, and yes, a president’s time is very limited, but the Obamas themselves seem as closed-off and unto themselves as does his inner White House circle. (Is this a coincidence? What is all this wariness about?) When the Obamas go to someone’s house for dinner, almost invariably it’s to that of Valerie Jarrett, the old friend from Chicago who serves as a counselor and whom they see all day. Old Chicago friends fly in for weekends frequently.

To this Noonan responded:

As I read Ms. Drew’s piece, I was reminded of something I began noticing a few months ago in bipartisan crowds. I would ask Democrats how they thought the president was doing. In the past they would extol, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, his virtues. Increasingly, they would preface their answer with, “Well, I was for Hillary.”
This in turn reminded me of a surprising thing I observe among loyal Democrats in informal settings and conversations: No one loves Barack Obama. Half the American people say they support him, and Democrats are still with him. But there were Bill Clinton supporters who really loved him. George W. Bush had people who loved him. A lot of people loved Jack Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. But no one seems to love Mr. Obama now; they’re not dazzled and head over heels. That’s gone away. He himself seems a fairly chilly customer; perhaps in turn he inspires chilly support. But presidents need that rock–bottom 20 percent who, no matter what’s happening–war, unemployment–adore their guy, have complete faith him, and insist that you love him, too.

There is another sign — which Noonan duly noted — that the honeymoon is over. Leslie Gelb, a pillar of the Democratic foreign policy establishment, posted a piece entitled “Amateur Hour at the White House” on The Daily Beast, criticizing the Obama administration not only for its “inexcusably clumsy review of Afghan policy and the fumbling of Mideast negotiations” but also for the President’s embarrassing Asian tour.
“Most presidents,” he rightly observed, “wouldn’t even commit to trips abroad without knowing that key deals would be finally agreed on and announced during the visit itself. The prospective visit is the power jackhammer to nail down the deals. Just take a gander at trips planned for Richard Nixon by Henry Kissinger or for George H. W. Bush by James Baker.” Obama would have done better to take a vacation in Hawaii than to have undertaken a trip from which he would return empty-handed.

Matters were made worse on the scene. It was not good optics for Obama to bow to Japan’s emperor. He seems to do this stuff spontaneously and inexplicably, as with his bow to the Saudi King some months ago. And it was truly unfortunate that Obama and his aides didn’t flatly insist that he be allowed to address the Chinese people directly on television and meet with non-stacked Chinese groups–as has been the case during previous presidential visits. Beijing’s leaders obviously didn’t feel confident enough of their own standing at home to give the popular Mr. Obama such access. But he and his team should have made it a precondition of the visit. Its absence left an unhappy taste.

In his view, “the message for Mr. Obama should be clear: He should stare hard at the skills of his foreign-policy team and, more so, at his own dominant role in decision-making. Something is awry somewhere, and he’s got to fix it.”
After taking all of this in, Noonan observes,

Mr Obama is in a hard place. Health care hangs over him, and if he is lucky he will lose a close vote in the Senate. The common wisdom that he can’t afford to lose is exactly wrong–he can’t afford to win with such a poor piece of legislation. He needs to get the issue behind him, vow to fight another day, and move on. Afghanistan hangs over him, threatening the unity of his own Democratic congressional base. There is the growing perception of incompetence, of the inability to run the machine of government. This, with Americans, is worse than Obama’s rebranding as a leader who governs from the left. Americans demands baseline competence. If he comes to be seen as Jimmy Carter was, that the job was bigger than the man, that will be the end.
Which gets us back to the bow.
In a presidency, a picture or photograph becomes iconic only when it seems to express something people already think. When Gerald Ford was spoofed for being physically clumsy, it took off. The picture of Ford losing his footing and tumbling as he came down the steps of Air Force One became a symbol. There was a reason, and it wasn’t that he was physically clumsy. He was not only coordinated but graceful. He’d been a football star at the University of Michigan and was offered contracts by the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers.
But the picture took off because it expressed the growing public view that Ford’s policies were bumbling and stumbling. The picture was iconic of a growing political perception.
The Obama bowing pictures are becoming iconic, and they would not be if they weren’t playing off a growing perception. If the pictures had been accompanied by headlines from Asia saying “Tough Talks Yield Big Progress” or “Obama Shows Muscle in China,” the bowing pictures might be understood this way: “He Stoops to Conquer: Canny Obama shows elaborate deference while he subtly, toughly, quietly advances his nation’s interests.”
But that’s not how the pictures were received or will be remembered.

To Noonan’s remarks — apt, I think, in every respect — I will add but one observation. The Democrats are getting what they asked for.
In 2004, they tried a trick. If we nominate a man who won the Purple Heart in Vietnam, they thought, we will win. Never mind that John Kerry disgraced himself in the aftermath of his service in Vietnam, making unjust charges against his brothers-in-arms and resolutely thereafter refusing to apologize to those whom he had slandered. Never mind that he had no executive experience. Never mind that, as a US Senator, he was — to say the least — undistinguished. They wanted to win; and they gave not a thought to what sort of President he might be.
In 2008, the Democrats did the same thing. They had on their hands an inexperienced, recently minted US Senator from Illinois who was — as Joe Biden put it in a candid remark that typifies his propensity for speaking his mind without first thinking about the consequences — “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Never mind, they thought, Obama’s long-standing connections with William Ayers, the unrepentant mastermind of a domestic terrorist bombing campaign in the 1970s. Never mind Obama’s close association with the racist demagogue Jeremiah Wright. Never mind his lack of executive experience, his unfamiliarity with the private sector, and his ignorance of the ways of Washington. With the help of the pliable press, he could be sold — and Americans would congratulate themselves on their lack of racial prejudice if they voted for him.
Now comes the reckoning. For Barack Obama seems to be a one-trick pony. He is very good at delivering a speech if he has a teleprompter at hand, and the first and even the second time that you hear him, you will be impressed. If you bother later to read and re-read the speech you will perceive its emptiness. But few will do that, and by the time that they do, it will be too late.
That is one problem. The other is that Obama’s one trick cannot often be played. As we have seen over the last few months, as he has tried to play this trick over and over and over again, the more we see of him, the less we are impressed. Franklin Delano Roosevelt never held his fireside chats more than three times a year. How many times has Obama demanded airtime from the networks in the last ten months? I shudder to think.
There is a third problem. Once in office, presidents are judged more by what they do than by what they say and how well they say it, and Barack Obama is in the process of doing a great deal of harm. His “stimulus” bill was a transparent act of grand larceny, stealing from the future in order to enrich Democratic Party constituencies now. His unlawful handling of GM and Chrysler defrauded the bondholders, rewarded the intransigents in the UAW who were largely responsible for the auto-makers’ decline, and made it harder for American corporations to borrow money.
And every version of the health care reform that he backs threatens to bankrupt the country and force us to raise taxes on a grand scale. If investors remain on the sidelines, if employers are reluctant to hire, and if, in consequence, the economic recover is anemic and virtually jobless, it is to a considerable extent Obama’s fault.
The simple fact that he has done nothing to rein in a patronage-mad Democratic congress is a sign of his fecklessness as President. As David Ignatius points out in today’s Washington Post, in 2010, there is going to be hell to pay — especially in Democratic strongholds with especially high unemployment, such as Michigan, Nevada, Rhode Island, and California.
There is in this a lesson. In 2012, the Republicans should nominate for the presidency an individual with executive experience — who has negotiated with legislators, and who has had to make decisions and take responsibility for the consequences. Among those available, they should choose a principled defender of constitutional government and a skilled manager who recognizes the ultimate dependence of the public sector on growth in the private sector of the economy and who thinks of himself in the international arena as the guardian of American interests.

Paul A. Rahe holds the Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee Chair in the Western Heritage at Hillsdale College. He is the author, most recently, of the companion studies Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty: War, Religion, Commerce, Climate, Terrain, Technology, Uneasiness of Mind, the Spirit of Political Vigilance, and the Foundations of the Modern Republic and Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect.

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