Obama's Competence Gap

We've heard the cliché: there is a difference between campaigning and governing. But in the last few weeks the contrast between the two could not have been more stark. And the gap between President Obama's effectiveness at the former and shakiness at the latter is coming into focus.

Guantanamo is the most vivid example. As a candidate, Obama pushed the notion that George W. Bush was a constitutional Neanderthal and destroyer of American values. Now he's discovered that it is really hard to figure out what to do with these really bad people. And he's even discovered the virtue of the Bush-created military tribunals.

Republicans have kept up the drumbeat, forcing Democrats to include limits on funding and demands to "show them the plans" before funding a Guantanamo shut-down. And it may be that there is no plan, no viable one to allow Guantanamo to be closed. As Kimberley Strassel put it:

If so, Guantanamo will join the growing list of security tools that President Obama once criticized as out of keeping with American values but has since discovered are very in keeping with protecting the nation. Wiretapping, renditions, military tribunals, Gitmo -- it turns out the Bush people weren't a bunch of yahoos but often thoughtful defenders against terrorism. This is all progress, though America might wonder if it could have been spared the intervening drama.

Then we had the detainee abuse photo controversy. Before he took office, Obama seemed agreeable to the Left's narrative that there was a massive policy of detainee abuse and the American people should see what it looked like. After the firestorm which followed his initial decision to release the photos, he adopted conservatives' view that we should not let a few bad apples destroy America's image and endanger our servicemen.

Although the president is tossing the ball back to the courts (at least for now) rather than signing an executive order to make sure the photos aren't released, his message is clear. He's not buying into the grand conspiracy vision of the netroots and he's not going to throw matches on the tinderbox at the moment when we are doing our best to lessen the danger of a conflagration in Pakistan and Afghanistan and complete the mission in Iraq.

We have also had another round of rotten economic news. The deficit is exploding, unemployment is rising, consumers aren't spending, and the stimulus is doing nothing for us.

In the campaign Obama effectively snatched the tax issue (cut 95% of Americans' taxes) and the fiscal sobriety issue ("go line-by-line through the budget") from the Republicans. But now in office (when he's not flitting off to work on health care or cap-and-trade, or taking vouchers from D.C. school kids), he's devising plans to raises taxes (on cigarettes, businesses, and energy) and ballooning our debt. Unlike his national security policies, he shows no sign of reversing course on economic policy or coming up with a coherent approach to reviving economic growth and job creation.

And finally on health care, we've been inundated with dog-and-pony displays and campaign-like events but haven't gotten to the heart of the matter: how to pay for it and how to allow Americans to keep their doctor and access to un-rationed care.   What's even more startling, as Yuval Levin points out, is the president's recognition that the endless cycle of spending and borrowing which his own administration has accelerated is "unsustainable":

If he understands the consequences of the federal government spending trillions it doesn't have with no plans for doing better, what does he make of his own budget, which calls for doing much more of precisely that? And what does he make of the health care plan emerging on the Hill, which would spend even more without paying for it and do very little about exploding health care costs except turn even more of them into government costs?

The president is fond of telling us that all the trade-offs which other administrations have made and which his political rivals wrestled with were "false." But the essence of governing is choosing wisely, something he has struggled to do.

In some cases (e.g., detainee photos) the administration has been badgered into adjusting course and dropping silly campaign promises in order to maintain a coherent national security policy. In other cases (e.g., Guantanamo) they are tied up in knots figuring out how to reconcile their sanctimonious rhetoric and the public's desire for security. And in still other cases (e.g., domestic policy) the administration hasn't come to terms with how to spur economic recovery or pay for the ever-growing liberal wish list, even as the prospect for stagflation and/or a collapse of our borrowing capacity looms.

But in each instance the gap between campaign rhetoric and governing reality is wide. And while the administration remains adept at throwing a summit or trotting out industry leaders to tout the president's ideas, the tough choices have largely been avoided. In the end, it's not about receiving shout outs from fawning pundits or even about rounding up a simple or filibuster-proof majority; it's about crafting effective policy. If you can't do that, no amount of stagecraft will save an administration.

And if we've learned anything in the first months of the Obama administration it is that campaigning only gets you so far. Eventually you have to get the governance right, and so far the prospects for that are mixed at best.