Ten years ago, George W. Bush assumed the presidency amid the biggest post-election controversy in modern times. He pledged to bring a “new tone” to Washington DC and it was generally accepted that without a real “mandate” from the electorate he would govern as a rather undistinguished, middle-of-the-road “compassionate conservative” much in the same way his own father had done a dozen years earlier.
But in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, a new George W. Bush emerged. A few days after those deadly attacks, atop a pile of rubble in downtown Manhattan, President Bush projected an image of strength, courage, determination, and leadership. When faced with a previously unimaginable crisis, the middle-of-the-road nice guy suddenly became the strong leader that America desperately needed.
But after two terms that brought prolonged conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and associated problems in Abu Graib and Guantanamo Bay, domestic disasters like Hurricane Katrina, and a faltering economy, Americans had enough of Bush and the Republican Party. It its place they elected a bright, clean, articulate young African-American man who was sold to the country as a new kind of leader, a brilliant post-partisan intellectual who would unite and inspire Americans in ways that the old political class could only dream of. He was supposed to embody the most outstanding leadership traits of Lincoln, FDR, JFK, and Ronald Reagan.
But what we got was The Incredible Shrinking President.
We should have known the score after the killing of Osama bin Laden, when a White House photo of our government leaders watching the bin Laden raid in the White House situation room revealed a nervous and detached-looking Barack Obama shrinking into a corner. At the time the photo was taken, he was undeniably the smallest person in the room.
The so-called “Debt Limit Crisis” of the last few weeks has done more than anything else to cement the image of Barack Obama as an inexperienced, ineffectual leader in a room full of grown men. Last weekend, Peggy Noonan observed:
The fact is, he’s good at dismantling. He’s good at critiquing. He’s good at not being the last guy, the one you didn’t like. But he’s not good at building, creating, calling into being. He was good at summoning hope, but he’s not good at directing it and turning it into something concrete that answers a broad public desire.
And so his failures in the debt ceiling fight. He wasn’t serious, he was only shrewd—and shrewdness wasn’t enough. He demagogued the issue—no Social Security checks—until he was called out, and then went on the hustings spouting inanities. He left conservatives scratching their heads: They could have made a better, more moving case for the liberal ideal as translated into the modern moment, than he did. He never offered a plan. In a crisis he was merely sly. And no one likes sly, no one respects it.
He never offered a plan. Ditto on health care reform. Or Libya. Or the Federal Budget. Or Guantanamo. Or anything else that really matters. Maybe its due to his history of “hijacking” legislation– that is, having himself installed by state Democratic leadership as the chief sponsor of bills he never authored — in the Illinois State Senate. Or maybe it stems from his years as a university professor or board member for various non-profit organizations, which forms the bulk of his non-governmental professional experience, where he was tasked with listening to and critiquing ideas, but never saddled with the burden of working those ideas into an operational plan, implementing that plan, and then bearing full responsibility for the success or failure of that plan.
The bottom line is that cleverness and a “fluorescent intellect” are poor substitutes for genuine leadership. Independents and fairness-minded individuals voted for Obama in droves because he (or at least his campaign) cast an image of a strong leader with unusually good oratorical skills who had overcome the petty, partisan politics-as-usual of government, who possessed a messiah-like ability to lead the nation toward the same level of victory over partisan hangups and political sniping that he himself had achieved. And in the process, Washington D. C. and its political class would be redeemed, and the country saved. But in times of crisis or political uncertainty, Obama has proven to be “weak but petulant, disengaged but inept … he’s doing to himself in one term what Democrats needed two terms to do to Bush — stage a long, slow attrition of credibility, likeability, and follower loyalty. ”
The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto summed it up this way:
Remember a few weeks ago when President Obama reportedly said to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor: “Eric, don’t call my bluff”? Lots of commentators said that this was a “tell”–that by referring to “my bluff,” Obama was admitting he was bluffing.
Actually, his play was even worse than that. A bluff is a pretense. The bluffer knows he has a weak hand but bets as if he has a strong one in order to induce his opponents to fold. Obama had a weak hand but thought he had a strong one. His next words to Cantor, according to Politico, were a vow to “take his case ‘to the American people.’ ” He actually believed–for all we know, he still believes–all that World’s Greatest Orator nonsense.
Thus he ended up maximizing his losses.
We can at least be certain that when a crisis unfolds, President Obama will feel compelled to take the issue “to the American people” via yet another snooze-inducing Presidential address. And right now, it seems as if very few people will be interested in listening.