The Clueless Presidency

If you cast your mind back to 1979 or so, one of the signs that Jimmy Carter was washed up was a long cover story in The Atlantic by James Fallows, who had been one of Carter’s speechwriters, called “The Passionless Presidency.” “[T]here was a mystery to be explained about Jimmy Carter,” Fallows wrote, “the contrast between the promise and popularity of his first months in office and the disappointment so widely felt later on.”

I’ve been waiting for someone on the center-left like Fallows to write a similar long-form treatment of what’s wrong with Obama for a long while now. I think we have a short version of it today from Bill Galston in the Wall Street Journal. Galston is a smart, moderate liberal. (The fact that he’s said nice things about me—see below— does not affect my judgment at all! No! It doesn’t!)

Galston’s column today, “The All-Spock-No-Kirk President” (here’s a Google portal for non-WSJ subscribers), is the rough equivalent of the old Fallows piece. Galston, who was a student of political philosophy with Allan Bloom among others, is clearly appalled by Obama’s naïvete, if you read carefully between the lines here (heh—an inside joke), especially the thought that Obama is a “Hobbesian optimist,” as revealed in the now notorious Jeffrey Goldberg interview from last week:

The question is whether Hobbesian optimism is a remarkable synthesis of apparent opposites or an elegant oxymoron. If you genuinely believe, as did theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whom President Obama admires, that original sin is “the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith,” then you cannot believe that human nature progresses toward justice. At most you can hope that our species gradually becomes wiser about institutional arrangements that constrain the evils of which we are capable.

History has been cruel to many such hopes. In 1910, the British journalist and politician Norman Angell published “The Great Illusion,” a book arguing that the integration of European economies had grown to an extent that rendered war among them futile and self-defeating. In 1920, the League of Nations was designed to preserve the peace in the aftermath of the “war to end all wars.” . . .

Consistent with his progressivist understanding of history, the president offers a strong defense of what we have come to call soft power: “Diplomacy and technocrats and bureaucrats . . . are helping to keep America safe.” He is right, but he carries the point much too far. “Real power,” he asserts, means that “you can get what you want without having to exert violence.” Not so; military power is just as real as diplomatic and economic power, and sometimes it is the only thing than can work. Unlike Vladimir Putin, Mr. Obama has consistently ignored the ways in which the military balance on the ground shapes what is diplomatically possible.

Galston’s final judgment is:

In an era characterized by deep distrust of government, Mr. Obama’s failure to take public explanation seriously stands out in high relief.

Welcome back to the “passionless presidency.” Except that Mr. Obama’s real passion was to move the country left, at which he has had some success.

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