Thursday, October 20, 2011

Does Obama Lead when he does not Speak?

When the dust settles on the history of the Obama presidency, a major theme historians will have to consider and explain, is the startling contrast in his record in domestic policy versus his successes in foreign policy, which now include the assassination of Bin Laden and the toppling of Qaddafi. To put the matter in another way: if 2012 were 2004, and Obama would be judged purely on his foreign policy alone, he wouldn't have to be doing any bus tours in the battleground states now.

I'm going to hazard a few hypotheses here to highlight the paradoxes of contemporary American politics. Only four years ago, Democrats were afraid that candidate Obama lacked the knowledge and the experience to take on the complex issues of the world -- a reason why Hillary Clinton was the presumed frontrunner. At the time, Obama drew sharp contrasts between himself and the Bush administration, essentially portraying himself as a kindler and gentler ambassador to the world rather than the abrasive tough-talking cowboy that his predecessor was. Also, at the time, it was thought that Obama's strong suit was what he would bring to the domestic policy-making table in substance (health-care reform) and style (bi- or post-partisanship). None of these expectations turned out to be accurate.

As it turns out, you don't really need all that much experience to have a successful foreign policy. Ronald Reagan didn't, and neither did Barack Obama. What mattered was that they were able to appoint personnel to get the job done. Delegation works when the President operates as Commander-in-Chief, when he does not need to negotiate with Congress or convince errant blue-dog Democrats yapping at his side. Call it what you will: "Leading from behind," engaging with the world, reasoning based on evidence, or hiring Hillary Clinton -- it has clearly worked. But another reason for why Obama's record on foreign policy isn't the topic of most Republican candidates' talking points is that it really isn't all that different from Bush's. He hasn't had to draw a line in the sand between a Democratic or a Republican approach. The tone and the execution may have been better, but in its essentials, such as the unilateral use of force (and especially predator drones), a preemptive presumption in favor of democracy, and a realist approach to "enemy combatants" (and Guantanamo Bay), the two administrations have not been all that different.

A gentler style and tone directed at the rest of the world may well be productive for the Commander-in-Chief, but it appears to have done nothing for the President at home. We may soon have to consider the grand irony that a person brought in to reconcile differences and to put red and blue states together has actually been spectacularly bad at doing so. It is almost as if it is precisely in those areas where Obama does not need to open his mouth to convince either side that he has met with the most success. That is to say, Obama has been most successful when he has been unilateral, picking and choosing what works and what does not and not really having to sell his selection to either party. And he has been the least successful when he has attempted to be persuasive, pragmatic and deliberative, trying so hard in town hall meeting after meeting to sell his domestic program -- the putative virtues he brought to the political table in 2008, no less.

Talk works in campaigns, but it appears perfunctory for the successful conduct of foreign policy and practically counter-productive when it comes to selling the president's domestic agenda. To be sure, the president is back on the road. But it is very likely, given the uncompromising Republican stance on raising taxes, that the speeches will be more effective in drumming political support for the president that it will be for his jobs plan. But this shouldn't be so surprising. We hire our presidents on the basis of their ability to talk, not their ability to govern. There is no real test for the latter until it actually happens. However counter-intuitive this may sound, the very stark contrast in Obama's leadership on foreign versus domestic policy strongly suggests that talking has much less to do with governing than our infotainment culture insists it does.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

What Occupy Wall Street Stands For

To understand the Occupy Wall Street movement, it is helpful to understand that it is the antithesis of the Tea Party movement, though for now, much smaller in scale. Occupy Wall Street protesters are, like the Tea Party protesters, disenchanted at the state of the economy, and impatient for solutions. But unlike their compatriots on the Right, their animus is directed at corporate America (Wall Street), not at government (Washington, DC).

Why is Occupy Wall Street more disorganized and rowdy, lacking a message as coherent as the Tea Party's? Because the American Left has always been a messy, rowdy bunch. Pluralism is inclusive, but it suffers also from having too many voices under the same tent. Yet one thing is clear, while Occupy Wall Street protesters are calling for government reform, they still believe in government. Indeed, they want a government that will stand up to the corporations. And this is why leaders on the Right, such as Newt Gingrich and Eric Cantor, are calling the protests a form of "class warfare" and are wary of the "mob." (Incidentally, this frame of chaos and disorder, if it spreads, is only going to push independents in Iowa and Florida toward Mitt Romney, assuming NH is in the bag.)

President Barack Obama may be able to catch some wind from this leftist anger, but he has been prudently tentative. Protests - whether on the Left of the Right - are evidence of disenchantment with existing governing institutions. Even though the Tea Party movement helped sweep many Republicans into the House last year, it ought to be remembered that they kicked about as many out. For all the talk of their influence, Mitt Romney remains the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, without the Tea Party's blessings. On the Left, the Occupy Wall Street movement would be even more difficult to harness. The protesters are, after all, protesting in spite of the fact that their representatives control two of the three elected branches of the government. While it will certainly give Obama some bargaining room to argue for taxing millionaires to pay for his jobs bill, the movement is also evidence of frustrations boiling over -- a condition that is not conducive for governance.

People go to the streets when institutions fail. There is a sense that American governmental institutions are no longer up to the task of delivering on the American Dream. The separation of powers, the Senate filibuster, government by committee (and super-committee), the permanent campaign, and bickering political parties may be democracy in action, but it no longer appears to be governance in action. What the Tea Party Movement, and Occupy War Street, jointly, call for, is an overall appraisal and re-synthesis of all these moving parts, so that faith in our institutions may be restored. The politicians can begin by starting to agree on something, for there is a lot more anger from where either movement came from.