Sunday, January 25, 2015

Dowd, Obama, and the Great Man Theory

Maureen Dowd is a valuable columnist because she articulates, in amusing, readable prose, certain widespread but entirely false beliefs about American politics. To her, everything comes down to the President and a handful of other Leaders, whose personality quirks determine what does and doesn't happen in America. Obama has disappointed her, so she blames all our troubles on his aloofness:
Obama won the presidency by creating a magnetic narrative. But then, oddly, he lost the thread of his story and began drifting. He didn’t get to the point Bill Clinton did, where he had to insist he was relevant, though last summer, some of his frustrated hopey-change-y acolytes talked about having an intervention with the rudderless president. But others argued against it, pointing out that, while Obama might not have the presidency that was giddily anticipated, during the 2009 tulip-craze phase, he was doing what he wanted.

He wanted to do what he saw as right and have the public and the pols come along simply because he said it was right.

But when the Potomac didn’t part when he was elected, he got grumpy and decided not to play the game.

As David Axelrod said, and as Obama concurred, the president was resistant to the symbolism and theatrical aspect of his office. He never got it that the emotional component of the presidency is real, whether it’s wooing lawmakers or comforting the nation.
There are in America these people we call "voters." They have certain powers in our system, and they set real limits on what the President can and cannot do. More immediately there are people we call Congressmen and Senators, who get to vote on most of what a President proposes. The President has no magic power to compel them to act. Nor does the President have any magic power to compel foreign leaders like the Prime Ministers of Iraq and Pakistan to do his bidding. The strictness of the constraints set by all these other factors varies from time to time and situation to situation. It is true that sometimes a President can bend the situation, but not very far. Dowd and lots of other liberals lionize FDR, but if you look closely at his career you see that he achieved what he did by closely following the limits set by public opinion. Roosevelt spent the first two years of World War II desperately searching for some way to get the US into the fight against Hitler, but he never did find a way until Hitler solved the problem for him by declaring war against the US in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt had been trying to delay war with Japan because he wanted to fight in the Atlantic, not the Pacific, so even though he got his war at last it was not quite the war he wanted. Not even the greatest politician can remake the electorate or the world to suit his plans.

This accusation in particular irritates me:
When the public was jittery about ISIS, Ebola and Ferguson, Obama responded like a law professor. He made a stunning speech on race to save his 2008 campaign, but he has stayed largely detached from the roiling race drama that stretched from St. Louis to New York.
People make this complaint about Presidents all the time, not understanding the basic situation: as the nation's chief law enforcement officer, the President cannot mouth off about pending trials. If he gave a speech in which he denounced police behavior, the defense attorneys of abusive cops would say that his speech had prejudiced the jury against their client, and a sympathetic judge might toss the case on that basis alone. On this as on so many other matters, there just isn't much the President can do except mouth platitudes about justice for everyone.

American politics are not as liberal as Maureen Dowd wants, or as I want. But that isn't Obama's fault, or Bill Clinton's, or Al Gore's. The fault is with liberal voters ,who reliably fail to show up on election day, especially during non-Presidential years. Until that changes, Republicans will usually have control of Congress, and liberal dreams will not be realized.

Quit waiting for superman and get to the polls.


G. Verloren said...

This is the fundamental flaw of democracy - it assumes that The People will be educated enough to understand the workings of the system.

The public is grossly ignorant of how government and politics operate. Moreover, there's no impetus or incentive driving them to become educated. Consequently, public opinion is based on ignorance and distortions of reality. And this in turn incentivizes politicians to care more about swaying public opinion than about reality or governing properly.

To use an analogy, our political system can be compared to "American Idol". It doesn't matter how objectively good a singer you are - what matters is how much popularity you can garner. A classically trained opera singer will routinely lose to talentless hacks who can better manipulate the mob. It doesn't promote good music or skilled musicians - it promotes flash in the pan trendsetters.

Why? Because while the people voting may not know art, they know what they like - or at least, they think they do. Or maybe they can just be easily convinced by outside forces that they like something.

pootrsox said...

Thank you for putting your finger on precisely why Maureen Dowd so annoys me :)