Two sterling insights from Obama neighbor, noted writer, and good friend, Francis-Noël Thomas, capture the disaster that is the modern American presidency:
1) Whatever a president doesn’t know on election, he won’t learn in office. However willing, what newcomer has the time or attention to master key leadership gaps? Consider the expertise to negotiate effectively with Congress, let alone grasp counter-insurgency theories, the culture of the intelligence agencies, the Federal Reserve System, or multi-faceted energy or health care industries. Command demands know-how and practice.
2) Today’s voters cannot evaluate a candidate’s all-important qualifications. Blitzed by the media, the electorate often mistakes resume items for working knowledge and skills. Does a partial Senate term convey how Congress works or teach even the brightest how to exploit the institutional powers of the presidency?
In this context, Obama and Bush share far more than maddening continuity on militarism, spying or anti-terrorism abuses, and corporate welfare. Equally under-prepared for Washington crossfire, both susceptible neophytes rushed to over-delegate power and judgment, conceding huge deficiencies. Did either understand the engrained and myriad cultures of ruling power bases they promised to reign in? Did either understand foreign affairs beyond sound bites, especially quagmires like Pakistan or Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan? Did either know diplomacy or taxation or how corporate spread commandeers more clout than most sovereign countries?
The Contagion of Gullibility
Though Dubya headed a large state, Texas’ weak governor system suited his fatuous “brokering” of pre-packaged deals. Despite fancy university degrees, business failures and family campaigning (pitching evangelicals), plus days in the military, Bush stayed a provincial, incurious rube. This amateur status likely endeared the governor to GOP elites (like Rove), who figured that gullibility, for which Dubya holds the world’s record, would only enhance his electability. And they were right: the mock Decider epitomizes the Peter Principle, wherein elevation from marginal competence to a post beyond one’s skill-set serves to dramatize defects (bingo, our worst president).
Likewise, Obama cruised home on an underwhelming career train, the low-level state politician turned ephemeral senator. In what core competence (Congress, the military, Wall Street, privacy laws, job growth, immigration, or leveraging the bully pulpit) has this president risen above mediocrity? His residual popularity reflects not yet getting blamed for Bushian-style calamities (though he’s making up for lost time). Judging solely by the results, neither Bush, nor Obama ever understood what presidential greatness, even excellence, demanded. Thus do gullible presidents get elected by gullible voters.
What, Bush is better?
Interestingly, disregarding final impacts, Bush outpoints Obama as proficient chief executive: his administration corralled more effective staff that enacted more initial agenda (all but privatizing Social Security). Bush (or Cheney or Rove) elevated ruthless operatives, topped with this historic breakthrough: empowering the overbearing Cheney as autocratic prime minister. Unlike Obama’s rough equivalence, the ham-fisted Rahm Emanuel, Cheney, the grizzled hack, knew how to smack down Congress and Washington with imperial abandon. Why else does pre-emptive, lawless, neo-con thinking rule to this day, at home and abroad, casting truth-telling Snowdens as enemies of the state?
In contrast, Obama failed to secure hardnosed hotshots to enact his far more ambitious promises: major, systemic reforms plus countermanding eight years of abuses. Recall Obama’s instructive, painful opening months when top picks stumbled and fell. Thus, prizes went to Hillary at State (nod solely to politics, not diplomatic expertise), Summers and Geithner on money (yikes!), a dim, yes-man attorney general, and a weak V.P. diametrically opposed to Cheney.
Most telling about his Peace Prize mentality abroad, Obama is the only president to carry over a Defense chief from the other party, despite pledges to curb warfare and militarism. That turned out well. Domestically, Obama broadcast his amateur legislative status when relegating his signature health care to the breathtaking tomfoolery of Congress. He compounded the fiasco by never clarifying his hills to die on, if any. What historic American reform shone forth after a monumental default to the snakepit on the Hill? Did Reagan, Bush I or Clinton White Houses even think to forfeit so much hard-earned power? Not on your life.
What, Bush more honest?
Bush was also more forthright when first campaigning than Obama. Except to play down nation-building, Dubya foretold his devilish plans on taxes, deregulation, scope of government, and grievous trade-offs between “security” and “freedom”. Bush-Cheney lied relentlessly when war-making, and on the Libby-Plame affair, yet Obama in the big picture looks the greater hypocrite. If anything, the status quo, especially across banking, energy, military and lobbyist leverage, is more entrenched now than in 2008. That will explain, when Obama’s negatives descend near Bush’s, that people don’t much distinguish a powerful, wicked failure with catastrophic judgment from a wimpy, more likeable failure who didn’t fight to leverage huge political capital.
That Obama’s learning curve is broken emerges in his current befuddled optimism: about Congress (yes, worthy partners all), or economics (the audacity of re-hawking Summers), or Russia (my buddy Putin). I think I can, I think I can. That adds to his woeful past record of getting snookered by reckless generals, like promoting nutcase Gen. McChrystal or backing Gen. Patraeus’ costly doomed surge, with prescribed thresholds. Afghanistan wobbles like bombed-over Iraq, and drone excesses only cement our infamy as hated invaders.
Obama boasts one asset Bush can’t match: no cadre of power brokers elevated this long-shot, a distinction on par with status as first minority president. Unlike Dubya and Reagan (handpicked governors to launch White House runs), or JFK (paternally-anointed senator, then president), or Bush I (riding a family dynasty), Obama’s personal ambition let him do it his way. Alas, his lousy outcome undermines the democratic spirit of rugged individualism: the self-driven, self-made guy performed little better than party hacks raised up by power elites.
Celebrity popularity contest
Today’s stalemate defines governance as gamesmanship that worships the status quo. Or regression, measured by Speaker Boehner’s eye-opener: judge us by what we repeal. Structural gridlock gets punctuated with a four-year circus of campaigning, fundraising, and media hype, spewing forth more TV celebrity politicians. Indeed, politics now mimics TV, with duplicative shows and stars every season that produce crude popularity galas: who’s the lesser bonehead, who comes across as “genuine”, who inspires more fire-breathing zealots.
Oddly, while modern White Houses continue to concentrate power, it’s no thanks to incompetence at the top, with an array of mighty mites over-matched by the times or their staffs or D.C. momentum. Carter’s singular merits surfaced after escaping Washington. Reagan starred so well as hands-off CEO few noticed big differences when senility hit. Clinton’s improbable ascension (surviving trailer trash talk) only encouraged him to overplay his hand and mouth, redeemed in prestige today thanks to the subsequent Cheney goon show. Initially Dubya lucked out by following the immoral Clinton, then parlayed 9/11 to unleash the darkest right wing forces, all the while managing record-breaking vacation time that ended in a pit of unpopularity.
Finally, Obama, despite intelligence (except on war or Constitutional law) and grace facing unending racist attacks, limps home as lame-duck hypocrite. If Obama’s negatives ever reach Dubya’s, our first Hawaiian president may ponder the appeal of a Kenyan birthright. That way, per the Peter Principle, he’d likely have retired after a lengthy, distinguished Senate career. More’s the pity.