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High Hopes Strangled in Their Cradle

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The "peanut gallery" has been more or less silent about David Axelrod, President Obama's chief political advisor and successful campaign manager. This commentator, yours truly, fingered Rahm Emanuel early on and mentioned Axelrod but once in eight months' worth of deconstructing the West Wing to the purpose of finding what ASIDE FROM OBAMA HIMSELF is causing the political ineptitude emanating (if leadership seeping slowly can be described as "emanating") from the Administration. In the Sunday edition of the New York Times we finally have an interesting article about Axelrod, and yes, it seems as if he has an attitude problem, too.

Happily, there is an excellent article in the Washington Post about the problems Toyota Motor Corporation has in finding the problems with its products, which up to now have dominated the automobile market on account of their high quality. It is an instructive essay because it very nicely points out that diagnosis is a tricky business in engineering and in medicine " and now with a good analogy " in politics. We cannot just rely on deconstruction of individual personalities, but must view the whole thing in action, then on the laboratory bench, then in terms of exogenous conditions, that is, the response of the organism to its environment. Key to the analysis is the notion that an "emergent" condition occurs, absent with any individual, but crucial (perhaps fatal) when the whole mechanism (or organism) is assembled. This, I believe, is the overarching problem with the Obama administration.

Let's take those scenarios one by one. The environment is hostile in Washington, and even in the best of times partisanship muddies the waters. Nowadays the environment provides sewage and slander, outrageous lies and complete, alternative realities. The response of the White House has been, predictably, to see the nattering voices of negativism as enemies, and the first reaction is to gain some kind of perspective on them by reducing their voices to "peanut gallery" status. This is unhealthy, contagious, indiscriminant, and the combination of West Wing voices amplifies the isolation that this produces.

The laboratory bench scenario is hard to replicate, but given the analogy the problem seems to be that the Obama team has given the testing of draft policy to a Congress-owned "company" that is dysfunctional in its own right. It reveals an administration that seems not to have the courage (or wherewithal) to do its own diagnoses. Or, even more likely, it seems to be jumping from one prefabricated conclusion to the next " with bi-partisanship being the common thread that infects each decision. Again courage may be the problem " or a misguided" terribly misguided " understanding of the Republican strategy.

Obama and Axelrod and Emanuel, huddled together with a huge crisis on their plates, see themselves as harried and yet unappreciated. They turn to personal loyalty as a defense, but ignore the problems that unexamined loyalty instantly creates. They have no internal criticism mechanism that challenges the wisdom of one another.

Finally, the road tests of the Obama administration are pretty ugly. The parts break down and no amount of swearing at the vehicle seems to fix the problem. We could have told you that over a year ago. In fact, we did. Swearing seems to let off steam, but it really is nothing more than an admission of failure to perceive an efficacious way of working through a problem. Rahm is the main culprit here, it seems, and with no progress toward using his brain rather than his gutter vocabulary, he needs to be gone. Now Axelrod seems to be picking up the torch from Emanuel, and perhaps it would be better if Obama surrounded himself not with profane and seriously underprepared operatives from Chicago, but professionals from around the country, people with a sense of the impending doom that the first year's incompetence has wrought.

I gave Obama until the Ides of March to demonstrate a change of course. Frank Rich seems to think that something is afoot, but like him, I think it is not enough ... yet .. and unlike him, I do not see 11/2/10 as the deadline. I continue to give Obama until Tax Day to remove Rahm. Now, I think it is important and necessary to re-locate Axelrod as well.


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James R. Brett, Ph.D. taught Russian History before (and during) a long stint as an academic administrator in faculty research administration. His academic interests are the modern period of Russian History since Peter the Great, Chinese (more...)

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