(Article changed on August 12, 2013 at 21:31)
(Article changed on August 12, 2013 at 21:30)
Two sterling insights from Obama neighbor, noted writer, and
good friend, Francis-Noel Thomas, capture the disaster that is the modern
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 counterinsurgency theories, the culture of the intelligence agencies, the Federal Reserve System, or multifaceted energy or health care industries. Command demands know-how.
2) Today's voters cannot evaluate a candidate's all-important qualifications. Blitzed by 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 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 understood what president greatness, even excellence, demanded. So gullible voters naturally elect gullible presidents. How else to explain that Romney the peerless blunderer got more votes than veteran, run-of-the-mill blunderer McCain?
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 into 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 cantankerous, 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.