It is probably too early to get a good handle on what kind of president Barack Obama will turn out to be. After all, it's been less than 4 days since he took the oath for keeps.
Still, the study of the American presidency is an examination of the exercise of power in a democratic republic. How does Obama turn his comfortable electoral victory into actionable policies and programs?
Taking the raw, unformed mandate of victory at the polls and shaping it into a club to get Congress and the various departments to do his bidding has been his first chore. In this, he has succeeded. He controls the agenda. His own party looks to him for leadership, while the Republicans -- both for political and traditional reasons -- are generally inclined to grant him the benefit of the doubt. This so-called "honeymoon" is nothing more than recognition by the opposition of political reality. The Republicans lost by near-landslide proportions, and now that his popularity has skyrocketed during the transition, to be seen hindering Obama is to be seen as obstructing the will of the people. At least, that's the argument that Democrats would make.
Obama made it quite plain what that means when Representative Eric Cantor (R-VA) went into a critique of the new president's "stimulus plan." Reportedly, Obama waited for Cantor to finish and then said, simply "I won." Obama's two word put down trumped the discussion. (Glenn Reynolds points out that if George Bush had tried something like that, he would have been considered arrogant.)
Obama will eventually discover, as all presidents do, that the office is, at one and the same time, both the weakest of Constitutional offices and the strongest. All Article II says about a president's powers is that he must execute the laws, act as Commander in Chief, make treaties, and fill vacancies in the departments during congressional recesses. And that's basically it. He cannot "propose," only "dispose."
The office of president draws some of its strength from the direct support of the people. In parliamentary systems, it is the prime minister's power base among MP's that allows him to exercise his authority. If he loses support among the people, he can still wield a considerable amount of influence as long as his party has "confidence" in his leadership. A president, as amply demonstrated by the last 18 months of the Bush presidency, has no such luxury. Power ebbs and flows as a result of the will of the people and a weak president is next to useless except in matters of national security where his undoubted supremacy as Commander in Chief imbues the office with the ability to respond to any crisis involving the safety and security of the people.
For the first 2 or 3 months, Obama will be more powerful than at any other point during his term in office. During these first few days, he has sought to use that power both symbolically and practically, altering some of the policies of his predecessor while staying the course on others.
Here's the good, the bad, and the ugly of Obama's first week.
The entire inaugural was a disaster area. The program was marked by a poem that some consider to have been the worst in inaugural history. A flat, strangely subdued (almost dirge-like) performance by some of the world's greatest musicians turned out to be taped. A hugely inappropriate benediction was given by the Reverend Joseph Lowrey. The huge crowd booed and mocked the outgoing president thus insulting not only Bush but Obama. And, after a flubbed oath of office that forced him to take it over again, a strangely uninspiring and forgettable address by the President himself.
There was also the evening festivities where President and Mrs. Obama found time for Hollywood celebrities, Washington glitterati, and politicos of every shape and size but somehow had no room on his dance card for the 48 Medal of Honor winners who attended the "Salute to Heroes" ball -- the first time in 56 years the Commander in Chief failed to show. The new president attended another mostly military ball but broke faith with his predecessors when he snubbed the MOH winners and other wounded vets -- some of whom had limped to the Ball from Walter Reed hospital. The launch of the new WhiteHouse.gov website got a black eye when it was discovered the worst kind of partisan language was used to describe the reconstruction of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Someone should tell Obama's partisans on the White House staff that the campaign is over and the American people will judge him based on his performance and not on how cleverly he can pass the buck for any failures to his predecessor. There was the ugly scene in the press room on Wednesday night where Obama became irritated when a reporter asked a question he didn't like. For a president to treat the press as an extension of his administration's PR arm -- which is what Obama was expecting when he entered the press room in the first place -- and not working reporters with a job to do, is clearly a troubling indication, first noticed during the campaign, that this president will not accept criticism or opposition very graciously. This attitude is probably going to make the press even less likely to challenge him -- if they had a mind to do so in the first place. Finally, the question that got Obama's dander up regarded his intention to name lobbyist William Lynn to the position of Deputy Defense Secretary. In order to do so, Obama has to waive his own rules not to hire any lobbyists for his administration.
Not even 72 hours into his presidency and he's already broken one of his major campaign promises. And he wonders why people are cynical about politics? Ugly, indeed.
The high point of the inaugural may have been the playing of the national anthem by the Navy Band and sung by the "Sea Chanters" -- played and sung as it should be played and sung, at the proper speed (a fairly brisk 135 beats a minute) and without the pop-culture trashing of the piece with unnecessary jazzy lilts and rock ‘n roll screams. And the parade was pretty good.
Obama's choice of Richard Holbrooke for special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan ("AFPAK") may be the best move of the week. Holbrooke is a no-nonsense, straight from the shoulder, tell-it-like-it-is diplomat. He was the chief architect of the Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnian War, knocking heads together until the two sides came to an agreement. As UN Ambassador, he got our contribution reduced while forcing the first tentative steps at reforming the corrupt finances of that body. (John Bolton, in his short time at the UN, did far more and was much more honest about the scandalous state of UN finances.)
If there is anyone who can persuade the Pakistani government to crack down on the Taliban and al-Qaeda who are currently crossing the border into Afghanistan almost at will it is Holbrooke. His portfolio does not include any power to negotiate with the Taliban, which is good. But neither does it include any instructions regarding India or the Kashmir, which is bad. Obviously, the Kashmir is a breeding ground for terrorists and the big bone of contention between the two countries. (Laura Rozen outlines the downside to this at the Foreign Policy magazine blog The Cable
President Obama also issued an executive order that will bring some sunshine back into the Oval Office, when he nixed a Bush era rule that not only hid many presidential documents behind executive privilege but allowed surviving family members to make the same claim even after the death of the ex-president. Any move that opens the government to scrutiny is a good one -- even if, as seems likely, Democrats will use Bush documents to press for an investigation into his presidency. Obama could have grandfathered the executive order to include the papers of future presidents only but such a move would have had his base howling in protest. Finally, it was heartening to find out that President Obama will continue the Bush policy of attacking the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan. The missile attack ordered by the president struck compounds in North and South Waziristan - a hot bed of al-Qaeda and Taliban activity. Past attacks have targeted the terrorist's leadership but there's no word yet on any success in that regard.
Obama's choice of George Mitchell for Middle East Envoy in the immediate aftermath of the Israeli-Hamas War may turn out to be a big mistake. As AT's news editor Ed Lasky points out here, Mitchell has a history of seeing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a question of Israel needing to give more in negotiations than the Palestinians. Expectations of Mitchell's "friendliness" in the Arab world may be raised due to his Lebanese ancestry and his promotion of a more "evenhanded" approach to the conflict. How this will affect US-Israel ties is unknown, but after 8 years of strong support for Israel from George Bush, there is no doubt that the appointment of Mitchell signals a big change.
Another big change is perhaps Obama's worst decision this week; the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility along with all other "black sites" run by the CIA. This was done with absolutely no plan regarding what to do with the remaining inmates at Gitmo nor coming up with an alternate for the CIA sites that isolated the "worst of the worst" terrorists in total security and secrecy.
One can look at most of Obama's actions this first week as payoffs to constituent groups who supported him in the election. His decision to close Gitmo can be seen in that light. The base of the Democratic Party had been suffering apoplectic fits for years over Gitmo and the terrorist trials. But closing the facility and suspending the tribunals was shortsighted. There is no plan in place on where to put the prisoners, how to judge them, or how to make sure that further released detainees do not return to fight us again. It is irresponsible and dangerous to our security, but it's cheered the base of the Democratic party nonetheless. Apparently, President Obama prefers to indulge in symbolism at the expense of our safety.
Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said the decision to close Guantánamo by a year from now "places hope ahead of reality -- it sets an objective without a plan to get there." I would add that it places atmospherics ahead of common sense -- a bad sign for any presidency, but especially one where the new chief executive has so little experience on national security issues.
An argument can be made to close Guantanamo and the black sites. But to make such an announcement without an alternate plan for where to house the prisoners, what legal structure will replace the tribunals, what, if any, rights will be granted the enemy combatants, what to do with future al-Qaeda leaders who are captured, and other questions Obama didn't bother to address with this political grandstanding and pandering to his base, suggests that the new president is unserious about issues affecting our security. Such may not be the case. But it is hard to judge otherwise given the cavalier manner in which Obama has taken these steps.
Another decision made rather cavalierly was the rescinding of the "Mexico City Policy" which prevents groups receiving federal funds from promoting or performing abortions overseas.
Americans supported the Mexico City Policy by more than 2-1. It is a good policy for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it prevented overly zealous groups from promoting abortion as a means of birth control in poor countries. This is an inherently racist attitude as it attaches less worth to babies of color than white babies. It also saved the lives of countless women who would have been exposed to dangerous procedures performed in less than ideal facilities from a medical point of view.
Rescinding this order (a payoff to feminists) will do little to improve the lot of women in poor countries and may even put their lives at risk. Quite a price to pay for pandering to a constituency.
Finally, Obama made his first really dumb political move when he picked a fight with Rush Limbaugh, telling GOP senators that they shouldn't listen to the talk show host and get on board with his stimulus package.
Obama broke the first rule of political gunslinging: never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel -- or in the case of Rush Limbaugh, someone with 23 million daily listeners and 3 hours every day with which to make you look like an idiot.
There are two things going on here. One prong of the Great Unifier's plan is to isolate elected Republicans from their voters and supporters by making the argument about me and not about his plan. He is hoping that these Republicans will also publicly denounce me and thus marginalize me. And who knows? Are ideological and philosophical ties enough to keep the GOP loyal to their voters? Meanwhile, the effort to foist all blame for this mess on the private sector continues unabated when most of the blame for this current debacle can be laid at the feet of the Congress and a couple of former presidents. And there is a strategic reason for this.
It won't be much of a war. Obama can't respond to Limbaugh every day while Rush will pummel him mercilessly. He was going to do so anyway but now Obama has made it personal. Aside from being a stupid move, it is simply bad politics.
As of Sunday, Obama's approval rating stands at a robust 68%. But with more questions being raised about his stimulus bill and the entire bailout culture that has sprung up in recent months. it stands to reason there is only one direction those numbers can go. And because as Peter Wehner points out in Commentary Magazine, Obama's support is "aesthetic rather than substantive" -- driven by a cult of personality rather than ideas -- it is likely we will see those numbers travel south as the reality of our economic situation and security concerns set in and people realize that The One does not have all the answers.
Rick Moran is associate editor of American Thinker.