To be sure, Obama’s ostensible equipoise, his ponderous and deliberative approach, and his celebrated intellect were to many welcome changes to the “cowboy diplomacy” of the previous presidency and his persistently portrayed imbecility. But by prizing such qualities above the genuine capacity to lead, one not only fails to appreciate the nature of the office for which Obama ran (there is, after all, a deliberative branch and it is not the executive one), but moreover gives short shrift to the lessons of history attached to that office.
The Constitution, and especially its second article, was born less of the spirit of 1776 than in response to the ensuing years when the Articles of Confederation was the governing document of the colonies. During that time when the fledgling confederation was beset by all sorts of complications, valuable lessons had been learned in the art of statecraft — not the least important of which was that “energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government (Federalist #70).” The solution to the perennial problem of how to prevent the abuse of executive power was not to do away with it altogether, but to circumscribe that power in a system devoted to republican ends — wherein power would check power, ambition would counteract ambition (Federalist #51), and where there would be a due dependence on the people and a due responsibility to the office, the Constitution, and the union at large (Federalist #70).
An executive was integral to that system, and not just any executive, but a vigorous and energetic one. On this score, Hamilton could not have been more clear:
A feeble Executive implies a feeble execution of the government. A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government (Federalist #70).
In espousing the idea that a vigorous executive was not inconsistent with the genius of republican government (Federalist #70), Hamilton was concerned above all with the nature of the office. But his reasoning applies no less to the individual who occupies that office. If a government countenances only a feeble executive, then the outcome only can be bad government. If the office is designed so as to encourage an energetic executive but is occupied by a feeble one, the result must still be the same, namely bad government.
The question, then — is Obama a feeble executive?
By any reasonable appraisal, in the one area where the president’s clout should be greatest and by all accounts is most vital, Obama is decidedly a feeble executive. One would be hard-pressed to cite a single area in foreign affairs in which he has displayed even a modicum of strength. Ardent hopes and austere rhetoric do not qualify. Hope will not bring peace to the Middle East any more than speechifying the Iranians will compel them to abandon their nuclear program. As Sarkozy dutifully reminded the quixotic commander in chief at the September 24 UN Security Council meeting: “We live in a real world, not a virtual one.”
As if to confound Sarkozy’s admonition, Obama has exhibited the rather curious, sometimes surreal, and generally disturbing tendency of being antagonistic with America’s allies and conciliatory with her enemies. He turned his back on a longstanding democratic ally in Central America in favor of a self-seeking demagogue who sought to undermine that nation’s constitution. He demanded that America’s most stalwart ally in the Middle East put an unconditional freeze on settlements, without making any corresponding demand on a terrorist group that openly seeks that ally’s destruction. He abrogated a missile defense agreement with America’s allies in Central Europe (through midnight phone calls, and at a remarkably infelicitous time, no less) to appease a resurgent Russia, whose current prime minister and de facto leader regards the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. He has appeared more inclined to slight Brown and Merkel than to offend Chavez and Ahmadinejad. It hardly redounds to Obama’s credit that America’s allies show no greater compunction in flouting his decrees than do America’s enemies. But therein lies the rub — on the world stage, Obama maintains a pusillanimous presence, one that is all the more egregious in light of the power that inheres in the office of the president.