Sunday, April 26, 2009

Walking the Tightrope: Barack Obama on the Choice between our Safety and our Ideals

On April 16, President Barack Obama ordered the release of Bush-era Office of Legal Council memos on counter-terror tactics, and in a statement, declared that "A democracy as resilient as ours must reject the false choice between our security and our ideals," echoing his inaugural position that "we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals."

This is a perfect example of political equivocation, a rhetorical gesture that means one thing to liberals and another to conservative. For liberals, they heard the president say that we will not allow alleged threats to our safety to become the excuse for an assault to our ideals. For conservatives, they heard that just because the president must do whatever he must to keep Americans safe does not mean that we must compromise our ideals. And so everybody applauded Obama's lyrical line on inauguration day.

In his April 16 statement, President Obama proceeded to explain his rationale for releasing the memos: "In releasing these memos, it is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution."

The President is balancing on a precarious tightrope. In releasing the memos he is trying to appease a liberal base looking for transparency and some say vengeance, and in guaranteeing those who used harsh interrogation tactics immunity from prosecution, he is trying to assure conservatives that he is serious about maintaining the morale of those who serve our country. Ironic, because though the president was trying to seal a can of worms, he may have re-opened it.

This is the acrobatics of modern politics. A gesture to one side, and a wink to another is Obama's only way out. The release of these memos was a gesture of good faith to Obama's liberal base who want justice, and yet a show of solidarity with conservatives who do not want to see a witchhunt. Consider that the real action of deciding who will be prosecuted has been conveniently delegated to Attorney General Eric Holder. Decisive action will force even the most talented acrobat to fall off the tightrope - for it requires a consequential choice. But Obama can remain suspended in mid-air - in his presidential honeymoon - as long as the American people are content with mere gestures. This may not be the case this time, because liberals are outraged at what the memos detail and this will put immense pressure on Holder to initiate some high-level prosecutions, just as this has mobilized the conservative base to preempt an impending witchhunt.

For several decades now, we have been too tolerant of presidents who have exceled in rhetorical shape-shifting in order to appear all things to all people. This has occured in part because the American people have come to believe that presidential words amount to presidential deeds. Words easily permit ambiguity; actions do not. We have bought an artificial consensus at a high cost: politics has become a spectacle of acrobatic tomfoolery. The American people appear unenthralled by Obama's performance this time though, and while democracy will benefit from this, it is not good news for the president.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

100 Days

What can the first 100 days tell us about a president's remaining days in office? Not much about the president, but a little about the expectations we have of him.

President Bush tried and achieved little of significance in his first 100 days in office. His major accomplishment in his first year, signing into law a $1.35 trillion tax cut, would occur only in his fifth month in office. No one foresaw September 11, and Bush's aggressive expansion of the National Security State as a result.

Or consider the president who preceded him. Bill Clinton tried to do a lot in his first 100 days - too many, say conventional accounts - and consequently also achieved little of significance in his first 100 days. Clinton did end up doing quite a lot in his 8 years in office, but not because he overloaded his agenda but because he learnt, after his first two years in offce, to work with congress. 100 days predicted little in both these cases.

Or how about President John Kennedy, who presided over probably the biggest fumble ever in the first 100 days of any administration - the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Kennedy was able to recover from the debacle though, unlike Jimmy Carter who seemed to suffer one mishap after another even though the first he suffered during his first hundred days was quite innocuous. Carter had tried to create one of FDR's famous fireside chats, complete with blazing fire in the background in order to communicate his energy policy to the country. Carter wore a cardigan sweater rather than a suit, for which he later earned the epithet, "Jimmy Cardigan." The fact was the speech had gone down quite well at the time. The Boston Globe found it a "powerful presidential event, moving in its simplicity and significant in its reiteration of his goals." It came across, to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, like "a cup-of-coffee conversation at the corner drugstore, instead of a discussion at the club." Carter's first 100 days was retrospectively slammed because he failed to make good on the promises he made; while Kennedy's early gaffe has been quickly forgotten because history never offered him a chance to deliver on his promises - suspended as he is in political martyrdom. In neither case was the first hundred days either a predictor or a path-dependent lock on what these presidents who do later on in office.

So our fascination with the first 100 days of a presidency is a statement not about our ability to assess presidencies, but a mirror unto our expectations of them. The fact is few presidents are judged by what they achieved in their first 100 days in office. Only those on whom are laid great expectations become the object of great scrutiny. Few, if anybody, asked what President George W. Bush achieved in his first 100 days. A report card this early in a presidency is only required when the American people give a mandate to their president for swift and decisive action. And George W Bush had no mandate, having won less than half of the nation's popular vote. While most presidents spent the two months before Inauguration preparing their transition teams, George Bush spent much of this time contesting Al Gore's claim to the presidency.

Our fascination with scoring the achievements and failures of President Obama's first 100 days is a reflection of the expectations we have of him. The scorecard says more about the scorer than anything specific about the future of the Obama presidency. All we can observe is that with great expectations come opportunities for great success or failure. Very few people expect Barack Obama to be a middling president, and that's all we know right now.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The President's Church

Americans do impose a religious litmus test on our presidents, and there is a tradition that proves it. President Obama and his family attended Easter service at St John's Episcopal Church. Just across from the White House, it is known as the "Church of the Presidents," the unofficial White House Chapel. Almost every president since James Madison has found occasion to worship in this church and in particular at pew 54, the presidential pew.

The selective presidential need to prove a religious point proves my point. Consider the case of President Eisenhower, who was raised a Jehovah's Witness and whose home served as the local meeting hall for Witnesses for 19 years. Twelve days after inauguration his first inauguration, Eisenhower was baptized, confirmed, and became a communicant in the Presbyterian Church. No president before or after him has ever had to perform such rites while in office. The religious litmus test was so powerful in this case that it was voluntarily taken by a president who had already been endorsed by the people and sworn to protect and defend the Constitution.

Contrast Eisenhower to President Reagan or Bush, neither of whom belonged to a congregation or attended church regularly (or even sporadically) while in Washington, justifying their decision on the basis that the security requirements would be too onerous and disruptive to the congregations they joined. Faith is a personal thing only if the public aleady believes that a president possesses it. If not, no security arrangement is too onerous to trump the need to publicize it. This is true of President Clinton when he attended Foundry United Methodist Church while in Washington (one of the candidates for the Obamas' new home church by the way), and it is also true of presidential candidate John Kerry when he made much public display of his Sunday church attendances.

The speculation about which church the Obamas will ultimately settle on as a home church in DC has been fuelled, in part, by his past association with the controversial Jeremiah Wright and his membership in the Trinity United Church of Christ. The speculation about where the Obamas will end up has taken on more than normal political significance because there is a greater need for this president, unless others who didn't even have to attend church, to demonstrate that his religious views are squarely in the mainstream.

So on this Easter weekend, to those who bemoan the secularization of America, take heart, because presidents who appear godless know that they will be judged on earth before they are judged in heaven; to those who believe the separation of church and state is not yet complete, take stock, because where and whether or not President Obama ends up worshipping every Sunday has become a topic of paramount political importance to the administration. So much so that White House aides reportedly considered over a dozen churches before deciding on St John's as the safest place for a president to go to observe Easter Sunday.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

President Obama's Latent Realism

If there was one message President Obama wanted to send to allies in his trip to the G-20 Summit in Europe, it was to say that he is not George Bush, and the era of arrogant American unilateralism is over. In Strasbourg, France, the President said, "We exercise our leadership best when we are listening ... when we show some element of humility."

Does humility engender respect or does it evidence weakness? This week in Europe, President Obama was applauded and cheered, but this soft power didn’t seem to translate to much. The score is 0-1 in Round One of Liberalism versus Realism. I think the President knows this, and is merely waiting to cash in the store of goodwill he banked this week. As the major decisions of the presidency are made quietly behind the desk at the Oval Office, not in international summits, we should not mistake Obama's courtesies as the prologue of things to come.

The President could not have missed the setbacks he encountered in this trip. Sure, he successfully mediated the disagreement between Chinese President Hu Jintao and French President Nicolas Sarkozy so that the G-20 would "take note" rather than fully endorse a list of rogue offshore tax havens. But the American president's newfound respect for the world did not engender newfound cooperation or an increased willingness to take America’s lead. (And we should not have expected otherwise, for courtesies are exchanged only up to the point when conflicting interests are at stake.) Europe was not malleable to the president’s call for a larger global stimulus package, and far from enthusiastic at his call to welcome Turkey into the European Union. NATO allies only agreed to sending 5,000 more non-combat troops to aid the US war effort in Afghanistan. And of course, the President stood before a crowd of 20,000 people in Prague painting a utopian portrait of a nuclear-free world just hours after North Korea successfully tested a long-range missile launch.

President Obama’s European trip was a very well orchestrated and executed photo-op. There is no doubt that Europe is feeling the love, but it is unclear if she is returning it in real ways that matter. The dance of diplomatic and royal protocols may have thrilled the public and the media, but on things that matter, the president squarely confronted the limits of symbolism and gesture.

After all, the president did let slip in the same speech in which he was extolling humility that “when we recognize we may not always have the best answer but we can always encourage the best answer.” In the end, (even ) the Liberal Way is still the American Way. And I expect, as Theodore Roosevelt once counselled, the president's soft voice will soon be amplified by a big stick.