Matthew Yglesias notes astutely:
Something I think people don’t always get is that the President is not the columnist-in-chief or the National Blogger. One of the very nice things about being a professional political pundit, is that you can just sort of spout off what you think and use colorful language and strong, bold words. …Max Bergmann did an excellent post on just this subject last summer, saying that John McCain had a tendency to act more like a pundit than a president.
McCain has this in common with a lot of political figures on the right. Basically all of Europe’s “charismatic” anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim politicians are essentially bloggers manqués, from the Netherlands’ late Pim Fortuyn and current Geert Wilders to Britain’s Nick Griffin and Finland’s Timo Soini. Some such politicians actually wind up running major countries: Vladimir Putin has a tendency to mouth off at press conferences, as though he were just your average ex-KGB-agent-in-the-street, and Silvio Berlusconi has never been known to tone down his manner to preserve the dignity of his office, his country, the teenage girl in the bathrobe sitting on his couch, or anything else. Thaksin Shinawatra used to be a big-time straight-talker before it got him kicked out of his country, and Hugo Chavez has been known to act like he’s speaking truth to from a position of power too. And, obviously, there’s a gentleman who claims to have recently won 63 percent of the vote in the Iranian presidential elections who’s been known to make the odd bombastic, divisive pronouncement now and again. All of these guys are employing a dramatically different governing philosophy than Obama does. And it’s really not a coincidence that most of them are running small “protest” parties that don’t have any responsibility for governance, while the ones who do hold power have uniformly proven to be disastrous failures at running their countries.
I missed an excellent post the other day from Spencer Ackerman citing Trita Parsi of the NIAC:
It was important, Parsi said, for any non-Iranian organization wishing to show solidarity with the opposition to ensure that “anything they do is two steps behind the opposition and not two steps ahead.”
I just wanted to point out that this has always been Obama’s MO. He’s always a step or two behind where his supporters want him to be, getting pulled along by their enthusiasm, rather than out ahead of them where he might get cut off. It’s a community organizer’s MO. You never get out ahead of your constituency. Instead you shape the playing field so that your constituency’s desires flow towards where you think they should go, and allow them to carry you along behind them.
Mark Kleiman comes back wowed from hearing Cory Booker speak, and says he’d already heard that Booker was “Newark’s Barack Obama”. But I remember a NYT Magazine profile of Booker in the late ’90s, I believe, that said people were saying he could be America’s first black president — well before anybody outside Chicago had ever heard of Barack Obama. Which is interesting because it reminds us that there was a wellspring of interest in that project that wasn’t yet attached to a particular personality. Obama is a political giant, but the place he moved into in the national conscious — like the place of the smart liberal good ol’ boy that Bill Clinton and later John Edwards moved into — was a place people were looking for someone to fill.
David Frum: “Since Watergate, American politics has moved into a new era of the criminalization of politics.”
The other way of looking at it would be that since Watergate, Republican administrations have been repeatedly breaking the law. Nixon spied on political opponents and broke into the offices of the Democratic Party; Reagan cut illegal secret deals to sell arms to Iran in order to fund right-wing insurgents in Nicaragua; and George W. Bush enacted a systematic program for torturing detainees.
Oh yeah, and Bill Clinton lied under oath about getting his intern to give him blowjobs. Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush didn’t do anything illegal as far as I know.
Back in 2006, when Hugo Chavez visited Vietnam, I got to stand with the rest of the press in the reception room at the Presidential Palace as he delivered a rather memorable little speech on all the time-honored ties of anti-imperialist tropical warmth that bound the Vietnamese and Venezuelan peoples together. As I recall much of this warmth at the time had to do with Venezuelan promises to help Vietnam build an oil refinery (promises that haven’t amounted to much yet), but there was a lot of nostalgia going on; the occasion felt like a throwback to a few decades earlier, when Nonaligned Movement strongmen would get together and embrace each other and fulminate against imperialism, capitalism and so forth. Chavez is a very charismatic guy, the Venezuelans were gorgeous and beautifully dressed, and there was much radical chic to go around. Seriously, it was a lot of fun, and I got the impression the Vietnamese took it all for exactly what it was worth, which was not much. Anyway, the most striking part of Chavez’s oration came when he said both the Vietnamese and the Venezuelans were “people of the sun”, and this innate quasi-racial warmth would always put them on the same side against the icy imperialist northerners who sought to impose their will on the world.
Reading the news of Chavez’s dramatic volte-face and decision to make nice with Obama, you have to reflect on the ways we expected Obama’s election to improve US foreign relations around the world, and the somewhat unexpected ways it actually has. In this case, it becomes somewhat harder for Hugo Chavez to invoke the solidarity of the “people of the sun” against the icy imperialist US when the face of the US is Barack Obama. That’s surely not the main factor in Chavez’s decision to make nice with Obama, but it’s part of the overall gestalt.
John McCain stopped by for a visit yesterday, and this morning we gentlemen of the press were graciously allowed to tag along with him on a visit to Hoa Lo Prison, known to American POWs as the Hanoi Hilton. It’s now a museum.
I’ve seen former POWs become extremely emotional when visiting the museum, but McCain has already been back a few times, and he didn’t seem particularly affected. He seemed to be mainly enjoying an opportunity to show off to Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who was accompanying him on the trip, along with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). At a press conference yesterday afternoon (at the actual Hanoi Hilton, the hotel, that is) Klobuchar began her portion of the opening remarks by gushing over McCain:
Klobuchar: Thank you very much Senator McCain, it is an honor to be here. I’m here as a new senator, also a Democratic senator. I’m here to tell you that Senator McCain is a hero in our country, and it was an honor today to go to see his monument by the lake where he parachuted down, and to think of that moment that changed his life forever.
And there are many Americans I’ve talked to who served in Vietnam who said it’s too hard for them to return. But Senator McCain has returned again and again and again, and has devoted himself to improving the relations between our country and Vietnam.
When Klobuchar called McCain a “hero”, he grinned uncontrollably, guffawed, and leaned back in his chair. Klobuchar has a bit of the”Fargo” accent you also hear in Sarah Palin’s voice, and listening to her successfully butter McCain up, it was hard not to think of what must have been happening last summer, when McCain was interviewing Palin for the VP job.
During the visit to the prison museum, Klobuchar continued the flattery. McCain spoke in a low voice, stoically, as Klobuchar commiserated and made pointedly sarcastic remarks about the museum’s propagandistic portrayal of Vietnamese generosity towards US POWs. Then Klobuchar spotted a 35-year-old McCain in the front row of a photo of POWs marching towards the USAF transport on the day they were released in 1973:
Klobuchar: Is that you? You’re so handsome!
A minute later, McCain laughed knowingly at a display of staged photos of US POWs celebrating Christmas:
McCain: This is (inaudible) hospitality.
Klobuchar: So it wasn’t really like this all the time.
McCain: That was really entertaining. they took me to one of these, I started yelling and shouting obscenities…
Klobuchar: And they never invited you back!
You incorrigible old bad boy, you. One reads stories of how Hillary Clinton ingratiated herself with senior (male) colleagues as a freshman Senator. What hasn’t come through to me before is how sexist the process looks. Of course one assumes that Klobuchar is a smart person who knows exactly what she’s doing, and that in this sense it’s not her who’s being manipulated, it’s McCain. And at some level he surely knows this, too. Still, it’s hard to imagine the relationship between a freshman male senator and a senior female one involving anything like this sort of giggly deference.
Meanwhile, McCain completely ignored Lindsey Graham throughout the tour. Graham is an Air Force veteran who served briefly in noncombat capacities in both Iraq conflicts, but he’s also a short, somewhat chubby guy who seemed strangely ill at ease around McCain. He hung back in third place as McCain showed Klobuchar around. Towards the end of the tour he spotted a propaganda photo of POWs purportedly raising chickens, and ventured a hopeful joke in his rich South Carolina accent:
Graham: Y’all raised chickens! That’s pretty good. I didn’t know you were a chicken farmer. You still raise chickens?
McCain ignored him.
Filed under: President
Steve Benen highlights the parochial “village-y” nature of Mark Halperin saying Obama should put aside most of his presidential duties to just focus on the economy — as though a president is supposed to do just one thing at a time.
What drives narratives like this has nothing to do with the nature of good governance. It has to do with the nature of good media. The news media like to have exactly one storyline to tell. It gives them a nice clean narrative arc to work with. It would be terrible for the governance of the country if Barack Obama were to punt on important issues like stem cell research (not to mention Afghanistan). But it’d probably be good for us media folks — it gets rid of a lot of the clutter.
Just a statistically more-valid reflection of what everyone knows to be true, but here, according to the LA Times/Bloomberg poll, is the effect Obama’s election had on the general sense of optimism/pessimism in the country:
“Do you think things in this country are generally going in the right
direction or are they seriously off on the wrong track?”
The “Wrong Track” number dropped 20 percent. That has to be entirely attributable to picking the right guy for President — God knows nothing else good happened betwee early October and early December, apart from “Friday Night Lights” getting picked up for a third season. But I doubt 20 percent of the country is watching FNL, even if they should be.
In a Steve Benen post I see that Nixon’s infamous line (from the Frost interviews, aka Frost/Nixon) “When the President does it, that means it is not illegal” is actually more complicated than I’d understood:
In context, Frost had asked about the notion that a president can “do something illegal,” if he/she decides the crime is “in the best interests of the nation.” Frost was particularly interested in the notion of the Huston Plan, which endorsed illegal surveillance and black bag jobs against Americans. After uttering the now famous phrase, Nixon added, “If the president, for example, approves something because of the national security, or in this case because of a threat to internal peace and order of significant magnitude, then the president’s decision in that instance is one that enables those who carry it out, to carry it out without violating a law.”
Benen doesn’t really follow through on the implications here but in fact this makes the Nixon line seem significantly less evil and crazy than it sounds when truncated. It sounds to me like what he’s talking about here is a version of the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Part of that doctrine holds that people can’t be held responsible for actions they undertook at the order of the government.
One example of the doctrine is its application in voiding suits by victims of Agent Orange, the toxic chemical defoliant used in the Vietnam War, against the chemical companies that manufactured the stuff. US courts have consistently held that the chemical companies can’t be held liable for damages because they were simply carrying out government orders: President Kennedy personally authorized the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. (Meanwhile, the government can’t be held responsible for damages because of sovereign immunity. Which means nobody can be held responsible, which is nice and neat, isn’t it?) Plaintiffs have attempted to end-run around this problem by noting that Agent Orange wasn’t supposed to be toxic; the high dioxin levels in the herbicide resulted from pushing the manufacturing process too fast. But as it turns out the companies made the Defense Department aware of this problem and DoD signed off on it, so the courts have held that they’re indemnified.
It sounds like what Nixon is saying here is at least in part similar: when the President orders you to do something (like break into the opposition party’s campaign headquarters), that means it’s not illegal for you to do it. You’re just following orders. And that doesn’t on the face of it seem so crazy. If a government authority tells you to do something that might in some cases be illegal — if a policeman orders a tow truck operator to take away someone’s car, say — we don’t hold the truck operator responsible when it turns out the policeman was acting illegally. Obviously this wouldn’t hold for crimes against humanity, but for something like breaking into an office, it’s at least a debatable point. It seems healthier to expect citizens to demand further proof of legal authority before following orders like this, but there’s some gray area there.
But there’s no gray area if the President is arguing that it’s not illegal for him, either. At that point you have impunity. And impunity is explicitly not part of the governing philosophy of the United States. Whatever crimes and misdemeanors the founding fathers expected Presidents to be able to get away with, breaking into the offices of the opposition political party cannot possibly have been among them. And it is hard to believe that authorizing torture could have been among them, either.