Walter Rhett

The Art of Governing

In National Affairs on January 14, 2011 at 1:37 pm
US Capitol, 1917

US Capitol, 1917

President Obama does seem to have a deep adversion to seizing the opportunties handed to him by his political opponents. He seems to drawback from the arena of partisan politics. He has missed opportunities to comment specifically on a number of Republican missteps, distortions, and stumbles. Here, he differs not only from President Clinton but also from President Lincoln who he admires. Lincoln loved to engage in overt observations about his opponents actions and ideas. And Lincoln’s engagement was not lofty or philosophical nor did it stem from abstract ideals. His rhetorical heights came from deep immersion into the specific dynamics of the politics. His flights of rhetoric were inspired by details. Lincoln spoke truth without being negative and inspired by the nation by the truth he pulled forth from his opponents’ views.

In contrast, President Obama seems to fit circumstances to a formula. A photo-op, a statement declaring the road to our better angels, a pledge to compromise and listen to those who seek to destroy him to search out their best ideas, a sly swipe at his impatient base, a re-statement of his creed to work hard every day for the American people.

Where he is effective is in the trenches. Faced with tough resistance, he has been able to muscle through legislation which seemed impossible to pass. But again the specifics are messy. The stimulus was too small, healthcare had no public option, millionaires and billionaires got their tax cuts, banks to big to fail weren’t broken up, consumers are feeling the financial backlash of financial and insurance companies inflicting pain in advance of regulationary legislation, and many of his appointments languish, unapproved. The war lingers and is an offshore economic blackhole and killing ground, a carbon tax is delayed, and immigration is stalemated. The disarmament treaty and DADT eeked by, pushed by legislators as much as the White House.

The President needs to remember he is not only the country’s leader, but he is the leader of his political party. It is fair play to counterpunch; it does less damage to his credibility than his appearance of The View. He needs to rigorously call his opponents on their views, laying out in plain sight what their soundbites obscure. He does so for policies he supports. But to defeat Republicans he needs more than metaphors about the “car in the ditch.” The Professor must rebut the specious arguments of his opponents point by point, step by step, until the entire house of falsehoods falls. Each time he misses an opportunity, he only allows the foundation of deception to turn into a political fortress for his opponents.

During the next two years, the President needs to remember Lincoln’s adage: “You have to do your own growing no matter how tall your grandfather was.”


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