Ed Driscoll

"Governance As Performance Art"

Rich Lowry nails the Oba-style in a memorable turn of the phrase with the above line. As Lowry writes:

There is already a debate over what went wrong with the Obama presidency.

Is his team of advisers — nearly universally considered the best and the brightest until the day before yesterday — serving him poorly? Has he failed to communicate effectively, even though almost all his speeches have been critically acclaimed? Did he fail to “pivot to jobs” fast enough?

Actually, Obama has a more worrisome problem: a reality gap.

During the campaign, Obama could throw a rhetorical pixie dust over all the difficult choices inherent in governing and the contradictions of his own program, making them fade into a beguiling vision of a sun-lit post-Bush America. This magical realism sustained him until November 2008 — but couldn’t withstand governing.

Consider Obama’s most elemental appeal as a candidate: He excited the base of his own party while winning over the center with talk of “post-partisanship.” On the stump, he could maintain this balance. In office, he had to choose either partisanship in the form of his powerful Democratic allies on Capitol Hill, or postpartisanship in the form of concessions to Republicans that would anger and disappoint his own side. He chose Nancy Pelosi, and watched independents flee from him.

* * *

Obama came to office under fundamental misapprehensions that hamper him still. It’s not true that all that was keeping the Israelis and Palestinians apart was the lack of US engagement, or that the Iranians were amenable to getting talked out of their nuclear program, or that Guantanamo Bay was a pointless contrivance.

Nor is it true that government is a sustainable source of economic growth, or a more efficient allocator of capital than the market. This is why Obama’s stimulus program — inevitably, a dog’s breakfast of politically driven priorities — is such a shambles that his aides never utter the word “stimulus” anymore. It is on to the next program, a nearly $100 billion “jobs” bill that reflects the touching belief that to work as intended a program only has to be named appropriately.

Obama’s advisers want him to pull out of his downdraft by getting back to campaign mode. It’s governance as performance art. He’s hosting a bipartisan health-care summit on Feb. 25. Surely, he’ll sound great and spin gorgeous webs of fancy — as the reality gap yawns beneath him.

Obama’s penchant for governance as performance art also helps to explain Jim Geraghty’s observation regarding “Obama’s Comfort With Crowds, and Difficulty Without Them:”

When I mention Obama’s presidential campaign, what image comes to your mind? Okay, you’re probably a conservative bunch, so maybe you think of Jeremiah Wright, William Ayers, hope, change, Joe Biden urging a man in a wheelchair to stand up, etc.

But my guess is a lot of folks across the political spectrum would think of Obama’s speeches, most often delivered in packed arenas and large public parks and the convention speech at Invesco Field. In other words, the image most commonly associated with Obama was he, at the center of the stage, all eyes and cameras on him, surrounded by a massive crowd with everyone chanting, “yes, we can” and such.

It was not him talking to people one-on-one, not the diner handshakes or the pancake-flipping breakfast that ate Gary Bauer or trudging through snow shaking hands on a Des Moines street. This is not to say Obama didn’t do these sorts of events, just that these smaller, quieter moments were not the ones that were decisive or central to Obama and his effort.

In fact, Obama’s worst moments on the campaign trail tended to be when he actually talked to voters individually or in small groups: telling Joe the Plumber he wanted to spread the wealth around, telling San Francisco donors why small town folks clung bitterly to guns and religion, his lament of “why can’t I eat my waffle?” at a Scranton diner. It’s probably why the “Celebrity” ad worked for a while; as much as the public admires celebrities, they’re seen as apart and different; there’s always that velvet rope separating the elevated and special folk from us commoners. Obama very clearly didn’t campaign as your next-door-neighbor; he campaigned as a secular messiah, the man declared “The One” by no less a cultural authority than Oprah.

Very few of the most memorable moments from Obama’s successful campaign involve him and another person, one-on-one or in a small group; generally it was he, alone, standing before the masses and keeping them enthralled.

I talked about this a bit in the Morning Jolt; the 1992 or 1996-era Bill Clinton could have won over Joe the Plumber, I suspect, or at least have left him laughing. Obama is one of those strange personalities more comfortable, and more charismatic, on a stage with thousands of people watching him than with someone right in front of him.

And that may also explain why as Jennifer Rubin writes, Obama is beloved by academics, because he governs as he’d rather by the Headmaster of America rather than its president:

In Obama, that mindset is combined with a prickly personality unaccustomed to criticism. So we get the insular, defensive, and often down-right nasty reaction to criticism from mere citizens and from news or polling outfits who don’t properly reflect the wisdom that the Obami believe is emanating from the White House. We’ve see the smarter-and-holier-than-thou attitude in everything, from the lectures on race in Gatesgate to the demonization of attendees at town-hall meetings.

And, of course, academics don’t do that much but write, converse among themselves, and lecture to unappreciative undergraduates. They aren’t responsible for achieving much of anything. They aren’t obligated to conform their theories to the realities of the world. So too with Obama, we see that his preference for grandiose regulatory and health-care schemes lacks a basic understanding of how private industry operates. He seems oblivious to the incentives and disincentives that motivate employers. And in foreign policy as well, grand theories (e.g., Iran engagement, the effort to put “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel to promote the “peace process”) collide with reality, leaving the smart diplomats bruised and embarrassed (if they had enough self-awareness to be ashamed of their results).

The media was mesmerized by an elite-credentialed author and law professor who seemed so very cool and so intellectually compatible with themselves. But the Harvard Law Review and Con Law 101 don’t prepare one for the presidency. Indeed, it turns out that those who are attracted to such endeavors may lack the stuff of successful presidents — common sense, appreciation for the private enterprise, toleration of criticism, attention to the bottom line, etc. Next time, maybe we should look for someone who fits less well into the Ivy League and more comfortably into the private sector and Middle America. The better presidents, after all, can hire academics — and learn when to ignore them when their advice proves impractical or downright foolish.

See also: Wilson, Woodrow.

(H/T: Kyle Smith)