Saturday, June 11, 2011

President Obama's Problems

The alternatives to a second Obama term are so frightening that one hesitates to find fault with him unduly, but this is becoming harder and harder. It became quite clear after the passage of the health care plan that Barack Obama's career as a transformational President was over and that he had no wish to resume it. I began suggesting around that time that he seemed at least as likely to become the Herbert Hoover of our present crisis as our FDR. He is clearly, I regret to say, a creature of the Establishment in a way that Roosevelt and even Kennedy were not. Academia treated him very well in his youth, and evidently earned his confidence. He has relied on conventional economic thinkers with results that are likely to be disastrous. But something else has emerged over the past few years, something which I am not nearly close enough to the situation fully to understand, but which emerges clearly from a growing body of data. In the midst of an economic crisis and an increasingly chaotic world, Barack Obama is not, it would seem, a very rewarding President to work for.

The contrast with other Presidents, and particularly with FDR, is noteworthy. Judge Samuel Rosenman was Roosevelt's principal speech drafter for the whole of this thirteen years in office. His cabinet members showed extraordinary loyalty. Secretary of State Hull, never a Roosevelt intimate, served for 11 years; Treasury Secretary Morgenthau served for the last 11; Interior Secretary Ickes and Labor Secretary Frances Perkins served for the full twelve. Harry Hopkins and Henry Wallace were close collaborators in several different capacities for the whole FDR Presidency. So did Admiral William Leahy. There were more changes within the White House, but staffers Steve Early and Pa Watson were also in attendance for a very long time. There were many reasons for this. Roosevelt spent time with all these men and women and encouraged them to compete for his favor; but more importantly, they knew they were part of a great crusade to remake America, and, then, the world. The private sector clearly offered no opportunities of comparable interest. Roosevelt's Administration included very few members of the GI (or "greatest") generation, as far as I can see, but it inspired many of them to behave similarly under Kennedy and Johnson. McNamara and Rusk stayed at their posts for seven and eight years; so did Orville Freeman at Agriculture and Stewart Udall at Interior. There were very few changes in either man's White House staff.

Barack Obama has now been President for two and a half years. He has already had two Chiefs of Staff; two press secretaries; and two National Security Advisers. In the midst of the worst long-term economic crisis in eighty years, one chairman of his Economic Council (Larry Summers) and two heads of the Council of Economic Advisers (Christina Romer and Austen Goolsbee) have left their posts. Having already changed National Security Advisers, he has now changed both the head of the CIA and the Secretary of Defense, losing Robert Gates, whose appointment was nearly the only bipartisan gesture that he managed to make work. And now rumors have surfaced that Hillary Clinton may follow in the footsteps of Robert McNamara and Paul Wolfowitz and go to the World Bank.

What this means, among other things, is that with the possible exception of Treasury Secretary Geithner (who is emerging as a major policy and public relations liability), no one has been allowed to emerge as a political force and a popular figure in his own right. Roosevelt in particular did not make that mistake. Ickes, Hopkins, Wallace, and, during the war, Secretary of War Stimson were massive public presences in their own right, inspirations to New Deal voters and lightning rods for opposition. Rumsfeld and Cheney played similar roles under Bush II. Hillary Clinton certainly might have played a similar role, but the Administration's foreign policy has been so lacking in innovation or initiative that she really has not had a chance to.

Why has all this happened, or not happened? To begin with, the President has made it clear that he would rather preside over the Eisenhower Administration than the Roosevelt one. One major reform--Health Care--and one anti-depression initiative, the stimulus, was enough for him--even though it hasn't worked. Roosevelt gave his subordinates responsibility and new worlds to conquer; Obama is fighting a largely unsuccessful battle simply to keep a federal government in place at all. Yet that cannot be the whole story. The President has always seemed to be a man of intelligence and charm, and he is legendary for never losing his temper; but sadly, he seems to lack Roosevelt's and Kennedy's knack for inspiring loyalty. Interestingly enough, while most of the men and women I mentioned above entered the national government for the first time under FDR, Obama has recruited an astonishing number of veterans of the Clinton Administration. While no adviser has betrayed, they have found it all to easy to end their relationship. There must be some reason for this, and eventually we will find out what it is.

Our crisis may be about to become much worse. Natural economic forces are not coming to our assistance, and the Republicans, it seems, may actually want to bring about a government default in the belief that any ensuing chaos will rebound to their benefit. The President has about six months to get on top of events. It is not clear that he has the necessary men and women around him to help him do so.

p.s. I of course had no idea when I did this post that the President, just a few days later, would tell the American people that he sometimes feels as if one term in office would be enough One reason people enjoyed working with FDR and JFK so much was that they couldn't wait to get to work every day. In any organization, the man or woman at the top sets the tone.


TOF said...

You must frighten easily.

Gerald Meaders said...


Many thanks for this essay on President Obama's problems.

I don't know much about the details of these successive administrations myself, but suspect that for a very long time, for a lot of obvious reasons, going back to George Washington and his frustrations even then, the best opportunities, (not to say the best people, quite the contrary) in this country, have been in the private sector.

All the best,

Ed said...

You may want to take a look at the turnover in the Clinton and the GW Bush administrations.

And actually the long tenures cited in the case of FDR and JFK/ LBJ are outliers. For one reason or another, most people serving in high government positions have stayed only a couple of years and left.

Anonymous said...

Seymour Hersh claims that

"I still think—I think right now—I would almost use the word "cult" to describe what’s going on in the White House. Everything is political. He’s isolated. Very good people say they’ve never seen a president this isolated, in terms of being unable to get to him with different opinions, etc. So here’s really captive of a few people there. I know this may sound strange, but I know what I’m talking about. You can’t get to the guy ..."

Jude Hammerle said...

Dear Dr. Kaiser,

First, I think we can give the President credit for one more accomplishment: the finding and killing of OBL. Both the finding and the killing certainly required testicular fortitude on his part, to put it politely.

But overall he has failed to do what is required of him: he has failed to restore the institution of The President to the stature it requires. While its decline did not occur on his watch, he is responsible for undoing the abuse the institution suffered since about 1999.

The institution of The President is symbolic. The meaning of the symbol is Everyman. Americans elected this president because he seemed so perfectly to embody their dream of being swept into power by acclaim for being themselves. By extension, the role of the institution of The President is to inspire ordinary people to do great things. In order to accomplish this, The President needs to sell ordinary people on themselves.

Selling is a simple task. First you assess the display that a person is making, then you vindicate the value of that display by playing it back, then you offer something that adds to their display. Citizens in an Unraveling are particularly easy to profile in this manner, because all are engaged in a unanimous rebellion against the center. In this circumstance, the indicated strategy for The President is to create a new center for all to join. One way to structure such a pitch to citizens would be: “You deserve X, but until now They have made you settle for Y.”

In the 2011 State of the Union Address, the structure of The President’s pitch was entirely wrong. He used first-person constructions almost exclusively: “I” appeared 47 times and “We” 147 times by my simple search-count. “You” (24 times) and “They” (26 times)--the crucial pronouns to motivate an Unraveling audience--were afterthoughts, at best.

To me, Obama’s greatest failing lies in an area most people consider above reproach: his public speaking. In this respect, one could say that too FEW of his speechwriters have left the administration.

With affection and respect,
Jude Hammerle

Bob in NC said...

Thank you for again sounding these alarms. Republicans are flirting with disasterous financial brinksmanship. If US debt default appears even remotely possible, the dollar will plunge much further, oil will skyrocket, China will demand much higher interest rates on further US debt, and the collapse will be much more severe than 2008-09. Can we survive it? Will the tattered threads of our social contract finally break? Will there be food/gas/housing riots? Will Geithner and his Wall St buddies install draconian austerity in 2012 and further transfer wealth from the 95% of us to their 5%-ers?
We may know soon, but if the likely worst happens, the Internet will crash too and we won't be able to talk to each other...

Dave Clark said...

I wonder if many are leaving the administration because of the Republican obstruction in Congress and they've found it simply impossible to do a good job? You're right about Republicans wanting (not "may" want) the country to default, only to cause Obama to fail, to retake the White House. That's treasonous.

David Patin said...

I wish I could disagree with you.

Anonymous said...


FDR's team did not have to deal with 24 hours news channels, the internet, weekend talk shows, etc. In this day and age the President's team, regardless of party, is subject to so much personal and political scrutiny two years is about all you can take. By comparison, FDR's folks worked in relative obscurity.

Also, I wonder if the economic team is leaving because they see what is being tried isn't working and things may only getting worse. I imagine FDR's team also had some sense of optimism that what they were trying to accomplish was actually working.

From a human perspective, why would you want to get raked over the coals daily by the modern media, doubting the efficacy of what you are doing, and knowing that next year is an election year with all that entails. Option B: Go back to the private sector with some modicum of privacy and 1/10the job stress associated with serving in a modern administration.

No surprise here.

Anonymous said...

When Bush is given credit and Obama is not, there
is nothing more to be said whatsoever. He's a goner.

"President Bush came to Congress ... President Obama
doesn't feel like he needs to come to Congress,"
Kucinich said during an interview on C-SPAN's
"Washington Journal" program. Kucinich pointed out
he was strongly opposed to the Iraq war.

Anonymous said...

Mostly agreed, except that I find it annoying that he is so often described as being held captive by bad advisors, as if he were some kind of Rapunzel.

I have always thought Obama has behaved as if he'd answered a casting call for his present job. Oprah was his agent and Soros the employer. I believe that now even more, because I don't think he has ever been able to have ownership of his own presidency, in terms of his own motivation. So then, how is it surprising that he cannot motivate or inspire those who work for him?

Oh, one last point of debate: must you never show objectivity toward the GOP? You seem to have no problem assigning good intentions to the Dems. I hate to disappoint you, but both sides are quite similar in good intent, being human beings all. Perhaps you are under estimating the goodness in one or over estimating it in the other...