Will Our Next President Be Capable Of “Masterly Inactivity”?

Even the birthers are likely to miss Barack Obama by this time next year, in part because we are unlikely to have a president capable of masterly inactivity. Obama’s motto, “don’t do stupid s–t” is a vulgar way of expressing the modus operandi. Masterly inactivity can certainly be overrated and fetishized (as J. Peter Scoblic points out in a recent Washington Post opinion piece on Trump’s incapacity for inaction).  Examples of this include Obama’s Syria flipflops, and perhaps Abraham Lincoln’s almost complete silence for months in 1860 and early 1861, wishing to keep his options open and not to inflame tensions–see Harold Holzer’s “The Sound of Lincoln’s Silence,” NYT Disunion blog, 11/23/2010, and his 2010 book Lincoln: President-Elect, which explores in depth the pros and cons of Lincoln’s refusal to “open his mouth, save only to eat,”  as one of his political allies put it.  But there is some real danger, I believe, that a President Hillary Clinton will feel compelled to prove her toughness in ways that won’t serve the nation well. The much greater danger is that we could easily, out of a misplaced faith in his “law and order” rhetoric, elect Trump, who seems utterly incapable of inaction, even when it’s most called for. “Watchful waiting” is a critically important capability of 21st-century presidents, and it is about the last thing that I associate with “Trump.”  Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy in the mid-20th century were capable of watchful waiting.  I hope our next president will study their example.

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