For example, let us consider the unplanned non-obsolescence of NATO. In the same breath, the president reminded us that he had said NATO was obsolete and informed us that NATO was no longer obsolete. Don’t even get me started on trying to figure out where the United States as such stands on Russia, let alone Syria, China, North Korea… I believe I grasp that the important point to remember is this: my president is the big strong man who tells me what is true and what is fake, and when he decides that there is a new, different, and probably opposite truth it is on me to avoid whiplash.
Renowned philosopher of history Donald J. Trump enunciated his cardinal principle today in a press conference with the King of Jordan. “The world is a mess; I inherited a mess.” This all-purpose hermeneutical key to interpreting Mr. Trump’s non-accountability for all subsequent events was delivered with a straight face. Yet one cannot help wonder why the man bothers to continue waking up in the morning and being president for yet another day. If all his predecessors made such a hash, missed so many opportunities, and in general FAILED, and Mr. Trump consequently cannot possibly be responsible for today’s disasters, what exactly is his job description? Breaking Update: Trump: “I do change. I am flexible… I now have responsibility…it is now my responsibility.” How about that. We should probably get ready for the Obliviate Memory Charm. P.S. Obama did also say “I inherited a mess,” but those who can recall the financial crisis of 2008 know that he did in fact inherit a big mess.
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.
The “rhetoric of reaction,” as described by Albert O. Hirschman in 1991, expresses suspicion of government via three theses: perversity, futility, and jeopardy. “According to the perversity thesis, any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy. The futility thesis holds that attempts at social transformation will be unavailing, that they will simply fail to ‘make a dent.’ Finally, the jeopardy thesis argues that the cost of the proposed change or reform is too high as it endangers some previous, precious accomplishments” (Rhetoric of Reaction, p. 7). Hirschman notes that these three theses may be used by progressives when conservatives are in power, but that perversity, futility, and jeopardy are arguments used primarily by counter-modern reactionaries.
Republicans in Congress have taken this rhetoric of reaction to new lows in their refusal, for example, to make any constructive tweaks to the Affordable Care Act. For decades, Republicans have, however, made an exception to their suspicion of government when it came to supporting the military, and the President as their Commander-in-Chief. Now, for President Obama, most seem to be making an exception to the exception. This is not to say President Obama has a foolproof plan, but Congress has not usually required that of Presidents before giving them latitude to strike or threaten credibly to do so. The divided Democratic caucus is a story for another day–as is the intentionality, or not, of John Kerry‘s utterances.
- Albert Hirschman: An Original Thinker of Our Time (3quarksdaily.com)
- Obama Syria Speech: Politicians React To President’s Address (huffingtonpost.com)
- Obama speech a model of persuasion (rss.cnn.com)
- Obama, in speech on Syria, says America can’t ‘look the other way’ (latimes.com)
- Obama’s Plea (slate.com)
- Obama’s Speech: A Cause Already Lost (newyorker.com)
The NY Post cover yesterday showed a funhouse image of President Obama in the Oval Office with the headlines “The Buck Does Not Stop Here!” and “Obama punts on Syria.” The other leading right-wing media organ, that is the WSJ, took a slightly higher road: “Obama recklessly gambles with American credibility.”
Many In Congress–Democrats as well as Republicans–might have preferred to not take a vote, so as to have the luxury of critique without fingerprints. President Obama deprived them of that easy path. Even though he did signal that he might go ahead with some kind of military action without Congressional authorization, I think that is quite unlikely. The political right is outraged whether Obama shows scrupulous respect for Congress’ Article One prerogatives or not. Their squeals are especially loud now that Obama has forced them out of their comfy Obamacare repeal fantasy zone and into the political open. Which is not to say Mr. Obama has a clear plan.
P.S. Are we likely to see the Murdoch-owned press show Cameron as a cheddar-cheese eating surrender monkey and Francois Hollande as a heroic Gallic Asterix? Will we (as has been tweeted already) have to call our breakfast food freedom muffins?
- Going to Congress: Obama’s Best Syria Decision : The New Yorker (newyorker.com)
To President Obama: Sir, you are the duly elected President of the USA, and as Baracka Flacka Flames has said, you are the head of the state. However, if you can say that the armed forces are “my military,” as you did today, either you or the Congress or both have lost your way. They, the Congress, may have wanted to abdicate their explicit Constitutional powers. But we the voters have chosen them as well as you to represent us.
And by the way, unless I belong to the military, you are not my commander-in-chief. Nothing personal. Neither was Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon…you get the picture, I hope. I have heard enough media insinuation, spoon-fed by minions of our surveillance state, that the President is Commander-in-Chief of the American people.
Update Saturday August 31: President Obama has paused to wait for a Congressional vote to authorize military action in Syria, surprising his staffers, according to a New York Times story. This is one issue where the Republican House can hardly refuse to vote–and the Senate will be obliged to take a vote as well. A piece of political prudence that may also be a step back from the imperial presidency. I do not follow, however, the connection he made from we are a country where right makes might rather than might makes right straight to “I have therefore made a second decision” to ask Congress for a vote. Congressional approval is a process issue that matters but does it confer just war status on whatever a president does?
- Can Obama Strike Syria Without Congress’ Consent? (wibw.com)
- FLASHBACK: Obama, Biden Remind That Military Action Requires Congressional Approval (huffingtonpost.com)
- How Obama Can Bypass Congress on Syria Strike (abcnews.go.com)