Economist to Obama: ‘Lead, Dammit’
The editorial board at The Economist (which apparently considers itself a “newspaper” despite coming out weekly in magazine format) praises President Obama for having “already done some commendable things” in the foreign policy arena but charges that, domestically, “His performance has been weaker than those who endorsed his candidacy, including this newspaper, had hoped.” They note that, after a euphoric election, “Mr Obama’s once-celestial approval ratings are about where George Bush’s were at this stage in his awful presidency.”
They excoriate him, in particular, for “failure to grapple as fast and as single-mindedly with the economy as he should have done. His stimulus package, though huge, was subcontracted to Congress, which did a mediocre job: too much of the money will arrive too late to be of help in the current crisis.” Additionally,
The failure to staff the Treasury is a shocking illustration of administrative drift. There are 23 slots at the department that need confirmation by the Senate, and only two have been filled. This is not the Senate’s fault. Mr Obama has made a series of bad picks of people who have chosen or been forced to withdraw; and it was only this week that he announced his candidates for two of the department’s four most senior posts. Filling such jobs is always a tortuous business in America, but Mr Obama has made it harder by insisting on a level of scrutiny far beyond anything previously attempted. Getting the Treasury team in place ought to have been his first priority.
They acknowledge that he is “learning” but “Mr Obama has a long way to travel if he is to serve his country—and the world—as he should.”
Take the G20 meeting in London, to which he will head at the end of next week. The most important task for this would-be institution is to set itself firmly against protectionism at a time when most of its members are engaged in a game of creeping beggar-thy-neighbour. Yet how can Mr Obama lead the fight when he has just pandered to America’s unions by sparking a minor trade war with Mexico? And how can he set a new course for NATO at its 60th-anniversary summit a few days later if he is appeasing his party with talk of leaving Afghanistan?
Jennifer Rubin and Mark Steyn argue that the reason Obama isn’t meeting The Economist’s expectation is not so much his managerial incompetence but rather that he’s much more liberal than he pretended to be on the campaign trail and therefore has a very different agenda. As Steyn puts it,
The nuancey boys were wrong on Obama, and the knuckledragging morons were right. There is no post-partisan centrist “grappling” with the economy, only a transformative radical willing to make Americans poorer in the cause of massive government expansion.
I’m reminded once again of a line Jeff Medcalf posted on Dave Schuler’s Other Blog in mid-October: “[M]any of the people voting for Obama seem to be doing so on the hope that he doesn’t mean what he says, and most of the people voting for McCain are doing so on the fear that Obama means exactly what he says.”
A lot of the Obamacons, fed up after eight years of Bush and not impressed by the McCain-Palin ticket were willing to overlook a lot to vote for a fellow who seemed a lot like themselves: intellectual, nuanced, able to speak in paragraphs, reasonable, and so forth. But, alas, his domestic agenda was not one that would ultimately sit well with conservatives — just as his foreign policy was actually not going to set very well with progressives.
That, said, I think The Economist is right to reflect on managerial style.
One of the flaws of the American system is that we frequently elect amateurs to high office, thus imposing a steep learning curve. In parliamentary systems, leaders work their way up through the ranks, filling key ministerial posts, and learning the ropes. A new premier from the out party has typically been the leader of a Shadow Government and a new leader from the in party has typically been the number two man in the Government. A new president, by contrast, has typically never been part of an administration and may never have lived in the capital before taking office.
In recent years, Americans have preferred governors for the presidency, which typically meant people came to the White House knowing how to create and manage a staff but with little grasp of How Washington Works or much knowledge of a whole range of issues that states don’t deal with. Conversely, someone coming from Capitol Hill is much savvier on those scores but have no clue how to run an administration.
Obama, alas, is the worst of both worlds, having neither gubernatorial experience nor much Washington experience. He’s been an incredibly talented dilettante, getting elected to one job and then the next without learning the ropes. He’s a fast learner and will get the hang of it but, to come back to the Hillary Clinton quip that starts the Economist piece, “the Oval Office is no place for on-the-job-training.” Except, as already noted, that it usually is.
Of course, Obama has taken over at a particularly unfortunate time, having inherited two wars and a global financial crisis, so his margin for error is even less than usual.
In fairness, although my preference was for the other guy, it’s not a slam dunk that John McCain would be doing any better. He’s got more leadership training and experience but he’s never been a governor or vice president, either. And he’s got some temperament issues that in some ways make him less suited for crisis management than Obama.
Regardless, anyone who has extremely high expectations that a new president is going to reshape the world has a strong likelihood of being disappointed.