The clothes have no emperor

by nkronos on February 16, 2011

President Obama has run through a little more than half of his term now and has made clear his executive style. Given his resume and including his brief tenure as a guest-time college lecturer, the characteristics of that style should surprise no one. Obama exhorts his listeners, both those allied with him and those aligned against him. When he puts on his presidential suit, he wears the apparel of the sermon-giver–sometimes in the fashion of a Martin Luther King but more often the moderate wardrobe of a Presbyterian or Methodist: the rhetoric of a Norman Vincent Peale.

Dressed accordingly, Obama perceives his job as saying what he wants to happen, admonishing others to make it happen, and then leaving the execution to them, with little top-down oversight. This management style can work, provided you either possess or go out and hire the right people. It’s also not as effective in crises. Likewise, at the college level an instructor can treat many students this way, but it’s a recipe for failure with under-achieving students, especially at the high school level and below.

Obama does not have the team or situation necessary for it to succeed in governing the United States. Surveying the wreckage of the past two years, the fashions clearly do not meet the times.

Whether one agrees with Obamacare or not, it has been the signature domestic accomplishment of the Obama administration. And just take a look at how it was accomplished and the train wreck since:

  • Obama left its design to the legislative branch, so that the resulting bill was a mishmash of poorly thought-out complications and unclear aims.
  • It passed only through bribery and process chicanery, which left it vulnerable to similar forms
    Into the woods

    Into the woods

    of “pocket” repeal.

  • To minimize and hide costs, the bill jury-rigged a timetable in which revenues gained a major head-start on costs.
  • The public substantially opposes it–and those numbers have worsened rather than improved since passage.
  • Multiple judges have declared it unconstitutional.
  • The administration has had to issue numerous waivers to it, mostly as pay-backs to Democratic contributors, via big unions.
  • It helped spawn the Tea Party and led to over-whelming rejection of Democrats in the midterm elections.

During the long fight to get Obamacare through Congress, the President intervened not so much in the details of how this plan to begin the socialization of health care in America would work, but in the sausage-making required to assure its passage, notably convincing Democrats to cave to Joe Lieberman’s demands regarding the public option, green-lighting any bribe necessary to secure Ben Nelson’s support, and finally throwing his influence behind using the budget reconciliation process to pass the milestone bill.

As with the Chicago Olympic bid, Gates-Cambridge Police fiasco, and even the BP oil spill. Obama believed the proper role of executive was to get other people together to do things and perhaps apply some personal pressure–and by that I mean not the weight of the presidency, but the force of his own personality. In Obama’s eyes, it’s arguable which he sees as greater. Also note that in those four events, the level of Obama’s own apparent involvement was of a similar magnitude, despite the varying magnitude of importance to the United States and the world. A typical posture by Obama was his declaration regarding BP that he would keep his boot on the neck of BP executives–metaphorically, not the best way to facilitate the getting of things done, nor exactly offering any ideas either. Instead, Obama walked the beach with petroleum and clean-up engineers, lecturing journalists about how tar balls work. This is the technique of the graduate student who does not know the answer to the actual question, so regurgitates facts he has crammed just before the exam to show he does know *something*.

When asked recently about unemployment, Obama redirected the question, saying that wasn’t his job.

Niall Ferguson’s tear-down in Newsweek covers Obama’s foreign policy effectiveness. In a subsequent television appearance Ferguson described Obama’s foreign-policy team as “second- or even third-rate.” Describing how Obama has handled Egypt’s revolution/military coup, Ferguson writes:

The president has alienated everybody: not only Mubarak’s cronies in the military, but also the youthful crowds in the streets of Cairo. Whoever ultimately wins, Obama loses. And the alienation doesn’t end there. America’s two closest friends in the region—Israel and Saudi Arabia—are both disgusted. The Saudis, who dread all manifestations of revolution, are appalled at Washington’s failure to resolutely prop up Mubarak. The Israelis, meanwhile, are dismayed by the administration’s apparent cluelessness….This failure was not the result of bad luck. It was the predictable consequence of the Obama administration’s lack of any kind of coherent grand strategy, a deficit about which more than a few veterans of U.S. foreign policy making have long worried.

In the two years of Obama’s leadership, it’s difficult to list, actually, all the things done poorly. Thanks to the deal cut with the GOP and the lame-duck Congress regarding the Bush tax cuts, his popularity–which had been steadily eroding throughout his term–has recovered slightly since the mid-terms. Because the economy continues to have deficit gasoline poured on it with paying the piper to be put off until we are in extremis, Obama may yet secure re-election (especially given the propensity of the GOP to nominate lackluster candidates). “Win the Future” apparently is shorthand for “help me win next year’s election”; clearly Obama has conceded to the Chinese any chance of winning the present.

The voting public may be fooled into rewarding this faith-healing charlatan in Hartmarx (Obama’s tailor, which filed for bankruptcy the same month as Obama was inaugurated) with another term. AceOfSpades, in a profanity-laden rant, fears that will be the case. Obama’s new budget proposal, however, reinforces that the only execution at which this executive executes is campaigning. Even some Democrats realize that kicking the can further down the road in hopes of ensuring Obama’s re-election is not responsible governance. Regardless, polls show that whereas the public wants our crushing deficit reduced and even say they want government to do less, they balk at cutting most specific programs and actually want the funding increased. Obama knows that.

As usual, for Obama it’s about talking:

It’s not because there’s an Obama plan out there; it’s because Democrats and Republicans are both committed to tackling this issue in a serious way….We’re going to be in discussions over the next several months. This is going to be a negotiation process….This is a matter of everybody having a serious conversation about where we want to go, and then ultimately getting in that boat at the same time so it doesn’t tip over.

Most people perceive that the canoe is already up that well-known creek and heading toward a waterfall so that the time for less talk and more action is now. What exactly was the point of that bipartisan deficit-reduction commission again? Wasn’t that the conversation to get Democrats and Republicans all in the same boat?

Like the lost hikers in The Blair Witch Project we press on, without any clear vision from our current guide of how we’re going to get anywhere. We ignore that our debt now exceeds the entire economy and stands at the highest level in those terms since the period immediately after we came out of the Depression and fought World War II.

The phrase “empty suit” is all too common in politics so let’s at least remember this off-the-rack special comes with a sonorous voice box.

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