Wednesday, February 05, 2014

The Affirmative Action Baby: A Different Take

I've been chatting with my friend the Wichita bureau over the puzzle of why Barak Obama has turned out to be such a mediocre President.  This blog post is the result although I should make clear that I haven't shown it to my colleague, and the opinions expressed herein are my own.

Be clear this is not a post about "born in Kenya" or "hates America" or "coming for your guns."  I'll certify that I think Obama is a decent man, even a smart man.  I hear that he masters his brief and that is comfortable making decisions (an underappreciated skill, I think, ironically rare in executive ranks).  I voted for him twice and  I'm pretty sure (particularly giving the indescribably awful competition) do the same thing over if I had to do it again.   It isn't even disappointment at Obama's centrism.    I know that everybody is a secondary source to himself after a while but I like to think that I knew he wasn't nearly the liberal that his enthusiasts took him to be.  I guess I am a bit surprised at his authoritarianism on the matter of spying and the phenomenon of demonizing journalists but for the moment, I think that's neither here nor there.

No: the question now is the matter of competence and in particular, how come Obama is so awful at the task of "leadership," understood here to mean the task of defining the issues and cajoling the troops to follow him--the characteristic, in other words, that made both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan so remarkable.  

Again, I like to think I saw this coming, though I can't honestly say I foresaw anything like its current dimensions.   Still, I had heard in particular about his career as president of the Harvard Law Review--the most important post, as his critics acidly recall--that he had ever held before.  I wasn't there but the story has been told.  Way I understand it, the board was riven between conservative and liberal factions who distrusted--all right, cordially hated--one another.  Obama presented himself as--well, no as the "compromise" candidate, but as a good presentable face forward, who could maintain an image of solidarity at the review while perhaps holding the contending factions somewhat at bay.

That can be an important role and if I am reading the scene right, then I'd have to say he played it well. But for his future career, it's a role that doesn't require him actually to do much of anything, except to stay cool and work to keep the temperature down.

All this may be old stuff. But now I'd like to expand the horizon.   Looking at Obama's pre-Harvard life here, isn't it possible to speculate that there might be a pattern here?  Don't we have a guy who is, first, pretty bright; second, likable (at least on the surface); and third, cool to the point of remote?  The kind of guy who, in short, is likely to get helped on his way up the ladder, even though he isn't really required to do anything?

I admit, in an effort to preempt criticism, that what I'm talking about here is a kind of affirmative action. But not what you might think.  I'm not thinking "stupid kid gets a break that should have gone to a smart white guy." I guess  I am thinking "smart, likable kid gets a helping hand without ever having to do very much."   And note that  don't mean to complain about any "unfairness" in the process--except possibly the unfairness to him insofar as it brings him up the escalator without ever realizing that hasn't really been seasoned.

One way to see this process at work is to consider the way Obama has presented himself persistently in times of crisis.  He certainly doesn't put your package in the top drawer, like Lyndon Johnson.  He doesn't try to mock or deride even to undercut his adversaries.   What he does do is to remind us that he's serious about good government, that he's thought hard about the issue, that he isn't influenced by base or unworthy pressures, and he more or less assumes (ha!) that his adversaries are doing the same thing.

I think you'd have to concede by now that this posture hasn't proven very effective.  More remarkable, in a world where appearances count for so much, it doesn't even seem very effective: think of how often Obama has taken a position which when you stop to think about it is perfectly reasonable but which, as presented, comes across as earnest, ineffectual, just naive.

Only one other point: I guess I'm also surprised that he doesn't seem to have learned from the experience. Some people grow into the job; some shrink.  Obama seems to have stayed pretty much the same. They say the Presidency is, or becomes, a prison. I certainly don't envy him the next three years (I didn't envy him the past five either, but let that be).   He's going to be miserable a lot and certainly won't all be his fault.  I do wish he could develop a bit of the grit and guile I suggest here, and which has been so lacking in his performance up to now.


Anonymous said...

If he had 65 Senators in his pocket, like Johnson did after 1964, or Roosevelt after '32 and 34, he'd magically have leadership skills coming out of his ears.

Ebenezer Scrooge said...

Gotta agree with Anonymous here.

Obama had a theory of governance. It was wrong, but he didn't know it in 2008. By the time he learned it was wrong, it was November 2010, and the possibility of "leadership" was over.

You might be able to fault his theory of governance ex ante, or his slow realization that it didn't work. You can also blame him for being an '80's moderate in a decade that called for progressivism. Or his continuities with Bush's foreign and security policies. But you can't blame him for his ineffectiveness after the 2010 election.

Anonymous said...

We are talking presidential leadership and forgetting that other fella who was so great at leading the country into two wars of choice and failing at both? That fella who espoused such marvelous things as regulatory underreach that lead us into the Great Recession. Just who was that masked man?
Why don't you call bullshit on this topic?

CrocodileChuck said...

Obama wants to be director of JPMorganChase.

Now, wonder why no finance executives were prosecuted for blowing up the world economy in 2008?