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Misleading the Republic: Obama at the Helm

Per the prescient Alexander Hamilton: "A feeble executive implies a feeble execution of the government."

by
David A. Eisenberg

Bio

December 6, 2009 - 12:02 am

Impartial observers looking for reasons to oppose Obama’s candidacy were not found wanting. Anyone capable of transcending the partisan pettifoggery with which the campaign, unexceptionally, was rife, would have been able to adduce a number of arguments why Obama was not fit to assume the nation’s highest office.

Perhaps the most prominent of these was his lack of experience. While not without weight, the argument was largely misguided. Experience, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad. While there exists a strong correlation between experience and competence, the former is no guarantee of the latter. Publius Quinctilius Varus was not without experience when he lost three Roman legions, to say nothing of his own life, in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest.

The inverse is no less true, and more relevant to the matter at hand. Nature engenders prodigies in all walks of life whose concomitant want of experience and prodigious ability rightly garner the astonishment not only of their contemporaries but of their antecedents for generations to come. Alexander the Great — who at the age of 20 succeeded Phillip II as king of Macedon and went on to become the pharaoh of Egypt, shah of Persia, and king of Asia by the age of 25 — serves as no trifling testament in this regard.

Obama availed himself of neither approach. Instead, while implicitly conceding the value of experience, he adopted the rather dubious position that his lack of it was inconsequential because he possessed the judgment to lead.

Better to possess sound judgment and little experience than sound experience and little judgment, so the argument ran. That the claim was suspect at best could be gleaned from the fact that the basis for it was his Iraq War opposition, which was promulgated as a state legislator in Illinois’ overtly liberal 13th district. Parroting the sentiments of your constituents hardly is a measure of leadership. Even if opposing the war did suggest an uncommon sense of acuity (which would be odd seeing that resistance to the war was not exactly uncommon), then it was at the very least undermined, if not discredited, by Obama’s obdurate opposition to the surge.

But leaving all that aside, the entire logic was fundamentally fallacious for the very reason that the judgment to lead is not the ability to do so.

Were one to accept Obama’s assertion that he possessed the judgment to lead the most powerful nation on Earth, no discerning mind could be excused for thinking that he in fact had the ability to do so. His proclivity for voting “present,” his feigned outrage over Jeremiah Wright’s “divisive and destructive” comments only when it was expedient to do so, his weighing in on the conflict in Georgia by imploring both sides to show restraint, his speech in Berlin where his revisionism of the Cold War disclosed an understanding of a world where leaders play no role — all these things showed that Obama thinks there are no tough choices to be made. Little perspective was needed to see that, however myriad Obama’s talents may be, a talent for leadership could not be counted among them.

What should have been clear a year ago would seem irrefragable now that Obama occupies the center of the world stage and not just the center of the American one.

He completely handed over the workings of the stimulus plan. He completely mishandled a working out of a health care plan. He eagerly appeased a combative autocratic regime by reneging on an agreement with America’s democratic allies in Central Europe, and readily sanctioned a thuggish theocratic regime by eschewing the democratic longings of its suppressed populace in the Middle East. His feckless Israeli-Palestinian peace plan has gone nowhere; his vacuous approach to Iran’s nuclear program has nowhere to go. From his many equivocations on the question of prosecuting members of the intelligence community at home to his endless dithering on the question of how to prosecute “the necessary war” abroad, on not a single substantive point has Obama exhibited any genuine display of leadership.

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.

On the domestic front, feeble would not seem apt, at least at first glance. He is after all working to effect what rightfully is regarded as a radical restructuring of America’s framework. But ambition is not synonymous with strength. Though more successful in implementing his agenda on the domestic front than he has been on the foreign one, that success is marginal at best. Granted, his presidency is young and his designs are monumental, but given the majorities he enjoys in both the House and Senate, to say nothing of the once considerable support of the American people, one is struck far more by the degree to which he has floundered than by the inroads he has made.

This weakness is further magnified by Obama’s tendency to wield what strength he does have in an undue manner. In a world teaming with veritable enemies, Obama has devoted a disproportionate amount of his time and energy to attacking people who, at most, should be little more than a nuisance for a man in his position. After watching Obama, one is left with the impression that America’s real enemies are not the leaders who tout America’s downfall or the aggregations that endeavor to bring it about, but rather the individuals who labor on Wall Street and the organizations that gainsay his agenda. There is something unseemly about a president behaving in such a manner. It is an irresponsible and ultimately inequitable use of his power. That he has scored some victories on this front (e.g., Chrysler bond holders) comes as little surprise, but such “victories” are hardly to be celebrated and do far more to intimate a want of strength than the possession of it. Obviously the father enjoys greater strength than the child he abuses, but it is from a position of weakness that he exercises that strength against someone he is charged with protecting.

Supporters no doubt would prefer to paint Obama as a man of restraint, not of weakness. But clearly if that portrayal holds any weight, it only can be with respect to his foreign policy, not his domestic one. Unparagoned dissemblers would be needed to portray as a man of restraint one who oversees a deficit in his first year of office that is greater than the total national debt for the first 200 years of the republic. That Obama does not bear the sole blame for the deficit is clear; that his complicity is considerable is no less clear. If nothing else, by insisting on overhauling the national health care system in spite of such deficits, he has forfeited all claims to restraint with respect to domestic policy.

On the international stage, it would require far less prestidigitation to paint Obama as a man of restraint. And if his supporters prefer to see him in such a light, so be it. But even granting this, the picture is no more comforting for the very reason that, as is the case with experience, restraint is not a virtue in and of itself.

History repeatedly has made clear that in matters of war and peace, restraint can prove at least as deleterious as the lack thereof. Madison’s concern with limiting executive power rather than wielding it very well may have led to the burning of Washington. Kennedy’s restraint in the face of Khrushchev’s aggression brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Buchanan, who took the same oath of office that his successor would take, did little to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution, and the union that it established, as he solemnly swore to do. Instead, he maintained that any use of force to preserve the union was categorically unconstitutional. Not only did he lack such authority, but so too did Congress. Had a president of commensurate “restraint” succeeded Buchanan, it is difficult to say where this nation would be — or that it would be at all.

If Buchanan serves as a forceful reminder that “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm (Federalist #10),” Lincoln bears witness to the fact that there are times when that is precisely where they will be. Notwithstanding the vexatious invocations of the 16th president on behalf of this nation’s 44th, and notwithstanding the spate of panegyrics that would suggest otherwise, in the annals of history Obama’s helmsmanship will not be considered enlightened.

The nation no doubt will survive Obama’s turn at the helm, just as it has weathered other tempestuous times when enlightened statesmen were found wanting. But it will not emerge unscathed.

Such “distempers of the State” are not without value, provided the people are able to learn from them, and in those intervening years when they are cast adrift they have the presence of mind to recall, sooner rather than later, that (Federalist #21) “the natural cure for an ill-administration, in a popular or representative constitution, is a change of men.”

David A. Eisenberg is assistant director for academic affairs in the Arts and Sciences at Columbia University and is adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Baruch College, City University of New York.
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