An Absence of Executive Temperament

In politics, temperament matters – it matters a great deal, as Barack Obama has unwittingly shown us time and again.

Some women and men love to posture, talk, debate, and negotiate. Temperamentally, they are suited for a legislative role. It is said – only partly in jest- that, in Washington, DC, the most dangerous space to occupy is that which lies between a United States Senator and a microphone.

Obama_Oval_Office_shrunk

Other women and men – think of Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Indira Ghandi, Golda Meir, and Ronald Reagan – were born to take charge. When Harry Truman put a sign on his desk, reading, “The buck stops here,” he knew what he was talking about. As Alexander Hamilton observed in The Federalist, it is vital that we have in our Constitution a unitary executive because, in human affairs, emergencies are commonplace; secrecy, vigor, and dispatch are often requisite; and, in such circumstances, there has to be someone in high office able, willing, and even eager to take responsibility for the conduct of affairs.

Americans have an instinctive understanding of what is at stake. Ordinarily, they choose as Presidents men with executive experience – men with a track record in directing affairs that can be judged. George Washington, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, and Dwight D. Eisenhower had been prominent generals before they were elected Presidents, and Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, and Theodore Roosevelt had also demonstrated an aptitude for leadership in war.

John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, the younger Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George H. W. Bush had held the vice-presidency. Jefferson and Van Buren had also been Secretary of State, and the same can be said for James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and James Buchanan. Monroe had also been Secretary of War, and this was true was well for William Howard Taft. Herbert Hoover had managed relief efforts in Europe early in and after World War I; he had served as Food Administrator within the United States after we entered that war; and, from 1921 to 1928, he served as Secretary of Commerce.

Many of the others elected to the presidency had previously held gubernatorial office.

This was true for Jefferson, Monroe, Van Buren, the younger Roosevelt, and, if one counts his service as governor of the Philippines, for Taft as well. It applies also to James K. Polk, Rutherford B. Hayes, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, William Jefferson Clinton, and George H. Bush.

The only men ever elected to the presidency who had no executive experience of any sort were Franklin Pierce, Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy, and the hapless incumbent we have today.

No one – not even, in retrospect, his own political party – thought that Pierce did a decent job. It was during his administration (1853-1857) that the Union began to come apart. Harding is best remembered for the scandals that beset his short-lived administration (1921-1923). And although, thanks to the slavish devotion of his acolytes in the media and in the academy, JFK is in some circles revered, his actual performance in office prior to October, 1962 was deplorable. As Donald Kagan pointed out on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall Kennedy was so weak, so irresolute and indecisive, so feckless in his dealings with the Soviet Union that his conduct encouraged Nikita Khrushchev to think that he could get away with introducing missiles tipped with nuclear warheads into Castro’s Cuba and brought us thereby to the brink of nuclear war.

Executive experience does not guarantee wisdom and competence in office. Pierce, Harding, and Kennedy were by no means the only elected Presidents to fall short. But, as the American people generally appreciate, the lack of executive experience is a good indicator of fecklessness to come.

Witness Barack Obama. Leave aside his first year in office. As I pointed out in posts entitled “Barack Obama and the Exhausted Presidency” and “Obama’s First Year,” from the outset, he conducted himself in an irresponsible fashion that is highly unpresidential.

He forgot that, in the larger world, the President represents his country. Out of personal pique, he persistently insulted our friends abroad, displaying disdain for Gordon Brown, stiffing Nicholas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, treating Benyamin Netanyahu with open contempt, and turning his back on the people of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Iran. At the same time, he embraced Hugo Chavez, sucked up to Vladimir Putin, and kowtowed to the rulers of Saudi Arabia and China – all to no avail.

With regard to domestic affairs, he seems not to have recognized that, under our Constitution, it is the President of the United States who represents the national interest; that Congressmen more often than not cater to particular interests; that, if legislation is left to the latter, principle tends to give way to patronage; and that the result can be a profound embarrassment. And so he stood idly by while Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and the like drafted legislation – a so-called “stimulus bill” and healthcare reform, each more than a thousand pages in length, each embodying a multitude of corrupt bargains, each threatening to bankrupt the country. And, like a political hack, faithful to his party to the bitter end, he promoted and signed their handiwork.

All of this was obvious long ago, and it was evident as well that, if there were a real crisis, he would check out. This is what he did when Major Nidal Malik Hassan gunned down thirteen Americans at Fort Hood. This is what he did when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab nearly brought down a jetliner at Christmas time. And this is what he did when Faisal Shahzad was found to have planted a bomb in Times Square. All three cases revealed an egregious failure of our intelligence apparatus. In all three cases, the danger had its source in developments within Islam And, in the face of all of this, the President of the United States signaled that he could hardly bear to take a few minutes off from his vacation at the beach in Hawaii, cancel a party or two, or give up his golf game to acknowledge and address the failures of his administration, and at no time has he been willing to level with us about the source of our peril.

Maureen Dowd and those who think that politics is about play-acting – here is her latest column on this theme – lament that, like Spock in Star Trek, No-Drama Obama is simply incapable of displaying any sense of urgency. The real problem is much more serious, for our well-being is to a considerable degree in this man’s hands, and, when things go wrong, he seems not to feel any sense of urgency at all.

The oil spill that began in the Gulf of Mexico on 20 April is the latest example. Some say that President Obama is no more responsible for the spill than President Bush was for Hurricane Katrina. This claim is, in fact, untrue. Bush had nothing to do with Katrina. Barack Obama, as President, was responsible for insuring that the regulatory agencies overseeing the drilling operations did their job properly. While campaigning for the presidency, he charged that the Bush administration had, in effect, allowed the oil industry to regulate itself, and he promised that, if he were elected, he would set things right. During that campaign, he took a wad of cash from folks at BP (more than they had ever given any other candidate); and, when the time came to reform the Minerals Management Service, as Tim Dickinson has shown in fine detail in the latest issue of Rolling Stone, the new administration’s appointees did nothing of the sort.

Nor was the Obama administration quick off the mark in doing what could be done to contain the spill. Instead, while the govenors in the Gulf states clamored for action, the President played golf and partied and the bureaucracy dithered, delaying by weeks efforts to prevent the oil from coming ashore, from fouling beaches, and killing wildlife. Nearly two months have passed since the accident on the Deepwater Horizon, and to date President Obama has issued no waiver to the Jones Act, which stands in the way of foreign ships with foreign crews helping to contain and suck up the spill.

The environmentalists are reportedly giving the Obama adminstration a pass. By now, they are reliable partisans, and they have their eye on cap-and-trade. The people of Louisiana are much less happy. They recognize the deepwater drilling moratorium imposed by the Obama administration for what it is – a ploy designed to persuade those not in the know that something decisive is being done – and, according to the left-liberal outfit Public Policy Polling, more than three-quarters of the voters in that state still favor offshore drilling. Moreover, half of the voters polled “think George W. Bush did a better job with Katrina than Obama’s done dealing with the spill,” 31% of self-described Democrats agree, and only 35% of those polled give Obama higher marks.

Only one politician has gained ground in the course of this crisis, and that is Bobby Jindal, the Governor of Louisiana. The poll recently taken shows that “63% of voters approve of the job he’s doing,” which is the highest approval rating that Public Policy Polling “has found for any Senator or Governor so far in 2010. There’s an even higher level of support, at 65%, for how he’s handled the aftermath of the spill.” Jindal is evidently a man of executive temperament. He is not better placed to deal with the spill than is Barack Obama, but he has done as much to keep it off the beaches and out of the swamplands of southern Louisiana as lay within his power.

As the reports make abundantly clear, Barack Obama did not help himself at all with the speech he gave on Monday night from the Oval Office. As our President plays golf, parties, and pauses from time to time to bloviate and pose for photo-ops, his popularity steadily sinks under the weight of his evident indifference to our security and well-being.

It is high time that Republicans start asking the obvious question: who, in their number, is best prepared to do what this presidential incumbent has no desire to bother with: to take what the authors of The Federalist called responsibility. Governor Jindal may not be at the very top of the list of possible presidential contenders, but he is certainly high on it.

.