Archives for August, 2008
CNBC just ran a feature entitled “Electing the CEO of America.” It’s a great illustration of the insane expectations Americans invest in what’s supposed to be a limited, constitutional office. As I write in that book,
Over the second half of the 20th century, Gallup polls showed that an average of 41 percent of Americans per year cited economic issues as the most important problems facing America. Here, as usual, the buck stopped with the president, Rossiter’s “Manager of Prosperity,” despite the fact that expecting any president to successfully “manage” a 13-trillion dollar economy made up of some 150 million workers, each with their own plans and goals, is unrealistic, to put it mildly.
The only presidential candidate in recent years to echo William Howard Taft’s 1912 admonition that “the national government cannot create good times,” was a fictional one, Republican contender Arnold Vinick, played by Alan Alda on NBC’s “West Wing.” In November 2005, the network aired a live “debate” between Vinick and his Democratic opponent, Jimmy Smits’ Matt Santos. Asked “how many jobs will you create?” Vinick said “None.” “Entrepreneurs create jobs,” he elaborated, “Business creates jobs. The president’s job is to get out of the way.” Real-life contenders don’t talk that way, nor do real-life presidents. (For what it’s worth, Vinick lost.)
Though I suppose “CEO of America” is an improvement over Hillary Clinton’s phrase: “We need a president who is ready on Day 1 to be commander in chief of our economy.” As Jerry Taylor put it at the time, “we eagerly await your orders, ma’am!”
I’m in the Christian Science Monitor (plus a podcast) today.
And recently in the Utne Reader as well.
In his 2002 speech, then state-senator Barack Obama said, “I’m not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.” And that would certainly represent an improvement over what we’ve got now. Curious, then, that Obama’s picked a running mate who seems to have no such objection.
Today’s Washington Post details Biden’s role in enabling our Iraq adventure. It’s hardly a “Profiles in Courage” moment, and it also points up the gutless and constitutionally suspect manner in which Congress authorized the war: by delegating the final decision over war and peace to the president:
In the days that led up to the vote on the war resolution, Biden and McCain stood together on the Senate floor, sometimes fighting against each other, sometimes fighting in tandem. They teamed up to shoot down an amendment by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) that would have forced Bush to seek further authorization before an actual invasion. They were on opposite sides of the effort to narrow the war mission from regime change in Iraq to combating Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. And Biden expressed plenty of misgivings about Bush’s intentions.
“The president always has the right to act preemptively if we are in imminent danger. If they are coming up over the hill, he can respond. If troops are coming out of Tijuana, heading north, we can respond. If they are coming down from Toronto, we can respond. If missiles are on their way, we can respond. But that is not the way I hear it being used here. We are talking about preemption, as if we are adopting a policy,” Biden said.
But in Biden’s closing remarks before the war vote in 2002, he also voiced a remarkable degree of trust in Bush. “The president has argued that confronting Iraq would not detract from the unfinished war against terrorism. I believe he is right. We should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said. “
Walk, chew gum, and play the harmonica, perhaps–having learned little from the Iraq experience, Biden in April 2007 called for American boots on the ground in Darfur:
Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a Democratic presidential candidate, called Wednesday for the use of military force to end the suffering in Darfur.
“I would use American force now,” Biden said at a hearing before his committee. “I think it’s not only time not to take force off the table. I think it’s time to put force on the table and use it.”
In advocating use of military force, Biden said senior U.S. military officials in Europe told him that 2,500 U.S. troops could “radically change the situation on the ground now.”
The New York Times had a good story this Sunday exploring the irony that the best public affairs show in America is Jon Stewart’s “fake news” comedy half-hour. I cover similar themes in the last chapter of the book, when I’m looking (desperately, some have said) for reasons to be positive about the state of American political culture:
An enormous chunk of Generation Y, those born roughly after 1977, gets its political information from Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, a comedy news program devoted to the idea that we’re led by fools….
Stewart’s merciless ridicule of President Bush has led some conservatives to complain that the show is politically biased. But the evidence doesn’t support that complaint. In a 2006 study, the Center for Media and Public Affairs found that the only overarching prejudice The Daily Show displays is indiscriminate contempt for the political class. According to CMPA, 98 percent of The Daily Show’s coverage of Republicans was negative, compared to 96 percent of its commentary on Democrats. The idea that anyone relying on the program as his or her main source of political news will end up woefully uninformed turns out to be false as well: Daily Show viewers tend to be more knowledgeable than most newspaper readers, even when factors such as education and political interest are taken into account….
In 2006, Daily Show alum Steven Colbert was the featured comic at White House Correspondents’ Dinner, the annual gathering of D.C. journalists where the president is expected to show up and be a good sport by putting up with some gentle ribbing. Colbert wasn’t gentle. In character as the moronic right-wing talk show host he plays on the Daily Show spinoff The Colbert Report, Colbert compared the Bush administration to the Hindenburg disaster, sarcastically applauded our “success” in Iraq, and suggested that the president was an ignoramus who refused to seek accurate information because “reality has a well-known liberal bias.” A former top administration aide who attended the dinner commented that the president was furious: he had “that look [like] he’s ready to blow.” Colbert’s performance was open, in-your-face disrespect for the presidency, and many people didn’t care for it. Many didn’t like it 10 years earlier at the White House Correspondents Dinner, when President Clinton had to sit uncomfortably while shock-jock Don Imus cracked jokes about Clinton’s marital infidelities (though, then as now, how offended one was largely depended on one’s party affiliation).
Despite the vestiges of hero-worship on display in the press and in popular entertainment, we treat the presidency with less sentimentality and less respect than we have in years…. Mocking those who rule us might seem immature, but consider the alternative: From FDR through LBJ, for nearly four decades, Americans forgot their heritage of political distrust, and looked to the Oval Office with a childlike faith in the occupant’s benevolence. The age of the heroic presidency left a legacy of ruinous wars, unrestrained executive surveillance, and repeated abuses of civil liberties. Perhaps a little disrespect is in order, and perhaps there are worse things, after all, than making the president a punching bag and punchline.
Back in a 1979 interview with Roger Mudd, Democratic presidential contender Ted Kennedy flubbed what looked like a softball question: “Senator, why do you want to be president?” Kennedy’s sputtering answer did real damage to his campaign.
Senators Obama and McCain gave marginally more coherent answers than Kennedy when Rick Warren asked the same question at Saturday’s megachurch confab, but in an America with a saner perspective on the presidency, their answers would have been disqualifying as well.
Obama offered some touchy-feely Rawlsianism mixed with a call for bipartisanship:
You know, I remember what my mother used to tell me. I was talking to somebody a while back and I said the one time that she would get really angry with me is if she ever thought that I was being mean to somebody, or unfair to somebody. She said, imagine standing in their shoes. Imagine looking through their eyes. That basic idea of empathy, and that, I think, is what’s made America special is that notion, that everybody has got a shot. If we see somebody down and out, if we see a kid who can’t afford college, that we care for them, too.
And I want to be president because that’s the America I believe in and I feel like that American dream is slipping away. I think we are at a critical juncture. Economically, I think we are at a critical juncture. Internationally, we’ve got to make some big decisions not just for us for the next generation and we keep on putting it off. And unfortunately, our politics is broken and Washington is so broken, that we can’t bring together people of goodwill to solve these common problems. I think I have the ability to build bridges across partisan lines, racial, regional lines to get people to work on some common sense solutions to critical issues and I hope that I have the opportunity to do that.
Only the first sentence of McCain’s answer is particularly cogent, but it reflects what Matt Welch has described as McCain’s “exaltation of sacrifice over the private pursuit of happiness” :
I want to inspire a generation of Americans to serve a cause greater than their self-interest. I believe that America’s best days are ahead of us, but I also believe that we face enormous challenges, both national security and domestic, as we have found out in the last few days in the case of Georgia….
America wants hope. America wants optimism. America wants us to sit down together. I have a record of reaching across the aisle and working with the other party, and I want to do that, and I believe, as I said, that Americans feel it is time for us to put our country first.
And we may disagree on a specific issue… but I want every American to know that when I go to Gee’s Bend, Alabama, and meet the African-American women there who are so wonderful and lovely, an experience I’ll never forget, and when I go to places where I know they probably won’t vote for me, I know that my job is to tell them that I’ll be the president of every American and I’ll always put my country first.
In the original constitutional scheme, the president wasn’t supposed to be the Empath-in-Chief or a national life coach-cum-self-help guru, charged with getting us off our duffs and uniting us all behind a higher calling. He was there to faithfully execute the laws, defend the country from foreign attack, and check Congress with the veto power whenever it exceeded its constitutional bounds. The formless, boundless vision of presidential responsibility revealed in Obama and McCain’s answers shows us how dangerously far we’ve travelled from that modest, unromantic conception of the president’s role. Fortunately, I know of a book that could set them straight.