Tag: the presidency

Whip Illegitimacy Now (WIN)!

You just know a David Brooks column featuring the refrain, “my dream Obama would…” is going to be exasperating. And it is: especially when he suggests that his “dream Obama” could and should:

… talk obsessively about family structure and social repair. Every week we get another statistic showing how social and income inequality is dividing the nation. …. while childhood obesity is falling among kids whose parents graduated from college, it is still rising among kids whose parents have a high school degree or less.

Because of his upbringing, President Obama is uniquely qualified to talk about family structures. Traditional values are an investment in the young, and he could do what he can to restitch the social fabric.

It’ll be tough to “restitch the social fabric” when you need at least one hand free to bend the arc of history, but no doubt President Obama believes he’s up to the task. Still, why does David Brooks think it would help to have the president “talk obsessively about family structure and social repair”?

Barack Obama has been talking obsessively about capital-‘h’ Hope for nearly a decade, and during his administration, as with his predecessor’s, many more Americans think the country’s on the “wrong track” than think it’s moving in the “right direction.” (.pdf).

The evidence that the presidential “bully pulpit” reliably sways the public’s policy preferences is weak enough, as Ezra Klein documents here. What evidence is there that presidential jawboning about family structures changes anyone’s behavior? Birth rates for unmarried women went down in the era of Monica Lewinsky and Gennifer Flowers, resuming their upward trend under family values president George W. Bush. Do people really make their choices about marriage and family under the influence of presidential rhetoric or with an eye toward the example he sets?

The campaign Brooks envisions would be about as effective as Gerald Ford’s little Whip Inflation Now (WIN) buttons. Maybe it’s time for a little less magical thinking about our presidents. 

Will Obama’s Libya ‘Victory’ Aid Re-Election Bid?

It is well established that presidents do not gain much of anything when they launch unsuccessful military ventures. However, they generally don’t gain much from successful ones either. The public does not seem to be interested in rewarding—or even remembering—foreign policy success.

The data are now in on the most recent such military venture: the expedition in Libya. The United States and its NATO allies materially supported popular rebels in their ultimately successful efforts to overthrow the decidedly unpopular regime of Muammar Qaddafi, efforts that resulted in the terminal demise of Qaddafi, a certifiable devil du jour in the American mind for decades. And all this at no cost in American lives.

After the rebel success and the death of the dictator in November, CBS News conducted a poll and asked a fairly mild question about the mission. It revealed that the public was quite capable of containing its enthusiasm for the venture, no matter how successful it may seem to have been:

Although it seems unlikely the venture will hurt President Obama’s reelection prospects, it seems equally unlikely it will furnish him with any real bragging rights.

The same thing happened in 1999 during Bill Clinton’s war over Kosovo, a venture that seemed considerably more risky and that inspired much more attention. As the bombs were being dropped there in support of the persecuted Albanian side, quite a few press accounts argued that the presidential ambitions and political future of Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, hung in the balance. From the standpoint of public opinion, the Kosovo venture seems to have been a success, not the least because no American lives were lost. But when Gore launched his campaign for the presidency a few months later, he scarcely thought it important or memorable enough to bring up.

And of course there is the legendary inability of George H. W. Bush to garner much lasting electoral advantage from the Gulf War of 1991. Although the success in that huge and dramatic victory caused even his ratings on the handling of the economy to rise notably, this effect was reversed within days in the polls. His slide continued into electoral defeat in the next year.

Lesser accomplishments seem to have been at least as unrewarding. Nobody gave much credit to Bush for his earlier successful intervention in Panama, to Dwight Eisenhower for a successful venture into Lebanon in 1958, to Lyndon Johnson for success in the Dominican Republic in 1965, to Jimmy Carter for husbanding an important Middle East treaty in 1979, to Ronald Reagan for a successful invasion of Grenada in 1983 or to Bill Clinton for sending troops to help resolve the Bosnia problem in 1995. Although it is often said that the successful Falklands War of 1982 helped British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in the elections of 1983, any favorable effect is confounded by the fact that the economy was improving impressively at the same time.

Even Harry Truman, who presided over the massive triumph in World War II, saw his approval plummet to impressive lows within months after the war because of domestic concerns.

And surely the ultimate case is that of Britain’s Winston Churchill. After brilliantly holding the country together during that war—at times, it seemed that the only thing the country had going for it was his rhetoric—he was summarily voted out of office a few weeks after its end. Or, as he put it, “At the outset of this mighty battle, I acquired the chief power in the State, which henceforth I wielded in ever-growing measure for the five years and three months of world war, at the end of which time, all our enemies having surrendered unconditionally or being about to do so, I was immediately dismissed by the British electorate from all further conduct of their affairs.”

In his perhaps-ironically titled book Triumph and Tragedy, Churchill recalls that, when the news about his electoral defeat arrived, his wife suggested, “It may well be a blessing in disguise.” Churchill replied, “At the moment it seems quite effectively disguised.” Other victors have had reason to express similar sentiments.

Cross-posted from “The Skeptics” at the National Interest.

Gov. Christie, Bill Kristol, and the Future of the GOP

The interest in New Jersey governor Chris Christie as a possible 2012 presidential candidate is understandable. His tough line against state spending, his willingness to take on entrenched interests in the Garden State, and his candor and blunt manner of speaking all appeal to Republicans weary of the current candidates. But while his views on domestic policy are relatively clear, Christie’s foreign-policy views aren’t. Indeed, governors have little reason to speak out on foreign-policy issues unless they run for president.

Without a track record, however, no one can know how a former governor will perform what is arguably a president’s most important job: deciding whether, where and when to deploy U.S. troops abroad. Recall George W. Bush’s plea for a humble foreign policy and his senior foreign policy adviser Condoleezza Rice’s assertion that the U.S. military should not be in the business of “escorting kids to kindergarten” in foreign lands. This was all forgotten by the time that Bush and Rice exited Washington eight years later. Rice essentially recanted her earlier opposition to nation building, and Bush had presided over a foreign policy that was anything but humble.

With that huge caveat in mind, can we venture a guess about Chris Christie’s foreign policy views? Not quite. But this passage from Christie’s speech at the Reagan Library hints at a measure of humility and pragmatism that is long overdue:

The United States must…become more discriminating in what we try to accomplish abroad. We certainly cannot force others to adopt our principles through coercion. Local realities count; we cannot have forced makeovers of other societies in our image. We need to limit ourselves overseas to what is in the national interest so that we can rebuild the foundations of American power here at home.

Such sentiments strike most Americans as eminently sensible. Numerous polls show that Americans want to stop fighting other people’s wars and building other people’s countries. Most believe it is better to husband our power and deploy our military abroad only when vital U.S. security interests are threatened. We should lead by our example, build a society that others wish to emulate, and avoid the temptation to meddle in other people’s affairs.

Not so, says William Kristol, Weekly Standard editor and Fox News commentator. In a famous essay co-authored with Robert Kagan in 1996  the two made the case for “benevolent global hegemony.” Kristol and Kagan especially took issue with those conservatives who:

succumb easily to the charming old metaphor of the United States as a “city on a hill.”

[…]

Because…the responsibility for the peace and security of the international order rests so heavily on America’s shoulders, a policy of sitting atop a hill and leading by example becomes in practice a policy of cowardice and dishonor.

So why would Kristol be pushing Christie to run for president?

At first glance, it appears that Kristol is willing to look past Christie’s foreign-policy views in the interest of finding a candidate best able to defeat President Obama in 2012. Perhaps Kristol believes that he will be in a better position to influence Christie’s policies at a later stage. Kristol was notably lukewarm on Governor Bush in 2000 but was nonetheless able to influence President Bush’s foreign policy.

But should Republicans listen to Bill Kristol?

Kristol’s brand of foreign-policy activism has always looked more like Woodrow Wilson than Ronald Wilson Reagan. Indeed, notwithstanding Kristol’s deliberate efforts to wrap his foreign-policy views around Reagan’s legacy, Reagan was more skeptical of confrontation with the Soviet Union than the neoconservatives, as Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke expertly demonstrate in their book America Alone. And conservatives’ understandable skepticism of nation building at home has never fit with the neoconservatives’ notions of nation building abroad.

Beyond this serious philosophical disagreement, Republicans should recall the terrible effects that the neoconservatives’ foreign policies had on Republican candidates in recent elections. Kristol was a leading champion for some of the biggest foreign policy blunders in U.S. history. Those blunders denied George W. Bush a mandate for major domestic-policy reform in 2005, cost the GOP control of the Congress in 2006, and provided an opening that Barack Obama skillfully exploited on the road to the White House in 2008. Those are all reasons enough for Republicans to ignore Kristol’s advice.

It is too soon to say whether Chris Christie’s few early comments about foreign policy signal a genuine commitment to military restraint, or whether his skepticism toward foreign military adventures will be discarded as quickly and easily as George W. Bush’s humility. But there are modestly hopeful signs that Governor Christie hasn’t fully bought into the neocons’ benevolent global hegemony, and that suggests that he will be open to other points of view.

Cross Posted from The National Interest.