Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Obama’s passion gap

George Packer delivered a bitter assault on the competence of Barack Obama’s presidency in the influential “Talk of the Town” section of The New Yorker. He elevated the standard liberal frustration—the President’s “fire in the belly” problem—by saying worse things about others, invoking the pain of unemployed individuals that Obama can’t help, and quoting the famously scientific 19th Century European political thinker Max Weber. 

“On its own, the ethic of responsibility can become a devotion to technically correct procedure, while the ethic of ultimate ends can become fanaticism. Weber’s terms perfectly capture the toxic dynamic between the President, who takes responsibility as an end in itself, and the Republicans in Congress, who are destructively consumed with their own dogma. Neither side can be said to possess what Weber calls a “leader’s personality.” Responsibility without conviction is weak, but it is sane. Conviction without responsibility, in the current incarnation of the Republican Party, is raving mad.”

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The serious target of this extravagant indictment is clearly the President. The Republican Party is not of one mind. Try to imagine Sarah Palin and Mitch McConnell finishing each other’s sentences. Republicans recklessly over play their hand. Obama apparently doesn’t even have his heart in the game.

Packer’s case against him is personal: Obama seems determined to do his best within the bounds of Washington’s divided-government and doesn’t try to escape that reality with sufficient rhetorical verve:

“More important, he no longer uses his office’s most powerful tool, rhetorical suasion, to keep the country focused on the continued need for government activism.”

This fundamentally understates what Packer actually wants him to do and overstates the use of rhetoric to do the job. Packer wants the center of opinion in the country to shift far enough to the left that Obama can get his way on policy with a hostile Congress.

The center of public opinion is deeply ambivalent about the virtue of debt- financed government intervention. It can shift in favour a little more government leadership and, for the sake of a faster recovery, it probably should.  However, trying to hasten that process now with florid presidential rhetoric would be self-defeating.

Any success would be entirely speculative. Republican activists will continue to drive the primary process—the process that disciplines the president’s recalcitrant Washington opponents. The undecided voters that Obama needs won’t have a ballot to confirm what they think for another fifteen months. That’s a long time to wait for crowd reaction and policy progress.  

Of course, it would be more exciting if Obama dropped his reputation for being “more reasonable” than his adversaries and deployed a winner-take-all inspirational style. However, that would only deepen paralysis in Washington and feed the suspicion that he’s more articulate than effective.

The crucial problem with Packer’s thesis, however, is the contention that inspirational White House rhetoric can change the way the people think and, in doing so, can change circumstances on the ground.

Teddy Roosevelt coined the phrase “bully-pulpit” but never enjoyed the right circumstances to make it work. His theatrical competitor Winston Churchill appeared to use words to vastly great effect while TR ended his public career as a rather windy crank.  Yet, it was only during an extraordinary period in history that Churchill truly inspired. In the late spring and summer of 1940, he and his listeners agreed, finally, on the nature of the problem and necessity to act.   

Reading the facts responsibly did not encumber Churchill’s rhetoric. Luftwaffe planes over the night skies of London established Churchill as Britain’s greatest realist and that allowed him to be heard by everyone. Theories about military deterrence didn’t work for Churchill and economic arguments will not create a national consensus for Obama.

For a generation, Churchill had been recognized as a great wordsmith, while his political influence faded. He inspired a nation in 1940 because no one questioned his definition of the task before them. It would have only been embarrassing if he’d given “his blood, sweat and tears speech” a year earlier.

Conviction, without good timing, makes people look away rather than leap to their feet.

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