Crumbling in a Crisis: Obama and 20th-Century Liberalism

Implicit promises are breaking down on the left, and person suffering from all of them is the President of the United States. A number of people are making very different (and equally intriguing) points about this—for some, Obama’s hubris has cost him friends on the left; for others, the problem isn’t his attitude but his very philosophy. The general picture is that while Obama was seemingly well-suited to be the thoughtful benefactor of a flourishing nation, he is unequipped—both by situation and by choice—to handle a crisis; in short, to act like a president should. This is quite an assertion, and a roundup of recent commentary is worth a look.

Since the media appears to be applying the thumbscrews, it’s appropriate to start there. Before the oil crisis had even hit, Tevi Troy had published a lengthy article in National Affairs, in which he chronicled how the last several presidents had handled the intellectual community. Each approach was unique, but each was very intentional, recognizing that even friendly intellectuals need to be cultivated. Troy’s argument is that Obama took the media’s worship as an implicit promise of support, and consequently took it for granted. But, “President Obama would be foolish to assume that he can count on the support of liberal intellectuals regardless of his actions in the coming years.”

And sure enough, promptly after publication, the bottom fell out of the Obama administration. Obama’s handling of the oil spill has been so inept, so confused, that major Democrats are jumping ship. Democratic strategist James Carville, who criticizes his party about as often as Ann Coulter compliments it, exploded that Obama’s behavior was “unbelievable political stupidity.” Keith Olbermann and even Chris “Tingling Leg” Matthews have had enough as well.

Matthews’s characteristically blue-collar perspective is particularly insightful. He suggests that while Obama might have been a good intellectual-in-chief, he is failing utterly at being a commander-in-chief. Sermonizing is not needed; Ph.D.s are not needed; what is needed is good decision-making and visible leadership. And here, Obama has consistently failed since taking office. Maybe Senators don’t make good executives. Maybe his inexperience is hurting him. Maybe he doesn’t pay enough attention to detail. Maybe he’s too cerebral. Maybe he’s too passive. Whatever the reason (Matthews doesn’t have time to wonder in this short interview), Obama’s speech last night made him look even more lost and inept than he already did.

But why does Obama need to be the one fixing this? If we’re to believe David Brooks, it’s not really a fair thing to ask of him. After all, as Obama himself pointed out, “I can’t suck it up with a straw.”

Peggy Noonan contends that it’s his own fault he is held responsible. Just as with the sudden spurt of left-wing media criticism, he set himself up for it. In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, Noonan argues that that not only is Obama’s administration in crisis, his political philosophy is in crisis (Ivan Kenneally agrees).

According to Noonan, the liberalism of the last century—embodied by Obama, an old-school Progressive—fundamentally boils down to another implicit promise: “Trust us here in Washington; we will prove worthy of your trust.” In earlier decades, proponents of centralized administration could always explain their failures by complaining that they did not have enough power. But Obama and the Democrats have seized unprecedented power, and claimed still more (recall Pelosi’s claim that the power of the federal government to regulate healthcare was “essentially unlimited”). Having assumed the role of king in practice and the role of God in rhetoric, Obama has no excuse for impotence when confronted with a crisis.

So what, precisely, is at stake here? Obama’s personal credibility? His presidency? Democratic dominance? 20th-century liberalism itself? Depends on whom you ask. Obama clearly has leadership strengths that have not exactly been showcased recently. But when someone portrays every problem as a crisis needing his personal touch, and then fails to deal with an actual crisis, the crisis tends to look a lot bigger—and the failure a lot more spectacular.

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