Thursday, September 1, 2011

Catch of the Day

How about one for Jonathan Chait, for his brief but nonetheless epic takedown of Shelby Steele's latest. Chait is exactly correct: it's a whole column about what a horrible president Barack Obama is that is entirely lacking any actual specific references to any policy whatsoever. As Chait says, it's all attitude. My favorite part is that not once, but twice, Steele indicts the 1960s. It's just a wonderfully all-encompassing rhetorical trick, at least for those with the right cultural resentments. You don't need to explain what specific influence something from the 1960s has on some specific policy you don't like; it's enough to say that you don't like Barack Obama and the liberals and, well, after all, the 1960s.

OK, it's my second-favorite thing. My favorite is the bit about how bin Laden obviously targeted the US on September 11 because of American exceptionalism...which, you know, would be a lot more convincing if al-Qaeda had never targeted any of those unexceptional nations.

Really, I think one of the continuing themes here is that a lot of the current crop of conservatives, candidates and pundits and even wonks, just don't try very hard. Presumably because they don't have to. Mention the 1960s, throw around the word "exceptionalism", toss in an accusation of "relativism", and apparently the customers will line up around the block. I don't think there's anything at all inherent in conservative thought that has anything to do with it, but there you are, and the results are, to me at least, pretty obvious.


  1. .....a lot of the current crop of conservatives, candidates and pundits and even wonks, just don't try very hard.

    They're lazy and entitled. It's a culture of dependency. I blame the 1980s.

    Seriously, this is what you get when there's a party line. I imagine it's kind of the way American Marxists used to sound in the '30s, and it's not unlike what you see everywhere in academic journals and conferences in the humanities nowadays, except that there the writing is denser.

  2. Steele's stuff on white guilt is generally very good, generally honest on a topic that we are loth to broach, but otherwise his prose tends to be fairly turgid. I wouldn't hold him as a prototype of clear conservative thought.

    That said, its interesting how directly the current scheduling flap connects to the iconic failure of the modern liberal Presidency, Jimmy Carter. Why did Carter suck? Maybe his failures in Iran, but probably the deep international connections of VP candidate Bush had something to do with that. Maybe stagflation. But, IMHO, people mostly remember Carter as a bad President because of that (generally misremembered) speech about the crisis of confidence - an iconic, inappropriate message from the Message-Maker-in-Chief.

    Does it matter, to the economy, what dismal comments a President makes about the national mood? Maybe. Maybe its just animal spirits. We think it matters, though, which is a big reason we think of Carter as a poor President. For - fascinatingly - the exact same reason, Obama too is a poor President.

    Does it matter what a President says or plans for influencing the animal spirits of the willingness of small businessmen to hire? Maybe. Maybe not. In many ways, it feels very similar to the same "Maybe. Maybe not" of Carter's stupid speech about national malaise.

    The thing is, whether you're Carter giving that speech, or Obama rolling out a job plan, you're acting on the assumption that what a President says/does matters - otherwise, why give that speech (Carter) or roll out that initiative (Obama)?

    So in Obama's case, having a vaunted initiative, which - at least on paper - is intended to persuade small businessmen to hire, and rolling it out as the undercard on an unrelated event that those businessmen really care about, is the height of Presidential mediocrity.

    Its funny to read the parade of Obama apologists claim that this great Obama weakness doesn't matter because the electorate will soon forget. Plain Blog doesn't have archives up going back to 1979, but I'd bet good money this blog made the same "It doesn't matter" argument about Carter's national malaise speech as well.

  3. Said differently, take it away, Jay Carney.

    (There are several telling smirks in the attached clip. My favorite is around the 0:42 mark, when he says "Thursday was fine with us". I've had that same expression a few times in my life, and in each one, it was because I was uttering something so obviously false that it was hard to keep a straight face. That's that look, isn't it?)

  4. @CSH (9/2, 6:27 am) If memory serves (and I think it does) the public reaction to Carter's so-called "malaise" speech was generally positive. What hurt Carter in the wake of that speech was when he asked for resignation letters from his entire cabinet.

    Having said that, the biggest problem Carter had in November 1980 was the performance of the economy in the preceding 12 months. (It's the biggest challenge Obama faces as well.)

    An aside: Imagine Carter somehow got reelected in 1980. After the Fed-induced recession of 1981 and the subsequent economic recovery, would he have left office in 1984 as an enormously popular president remembered for getting the hostages out of Iran without going to war, and for breaking the back of the inflationary spiral of the late 1970s?

  5. Carter was a good man - intelligent and principled. Unfortunately, he just wasn't cut out for the bribing, horse trading and arm twisting required to deal with Congress effectively. (This is in contrast to Johnson and Nixon - both masters.) Carter tended to wear his heart on his sleeve and say what he thought - fatal flaws in Washington.

  6. Did I miss a memo about the purpose of Obama's speech being to persuade small businessmen to hire?

  7. Almost as lazy as Democratic columnists who say this isn't the president's fault, it's all congress, the white house has no power.....

    Carter's approval numbers definitely picked up after the malaise speech. Second gas crisis and Iran did him in.

    "Unfortunately, he just wasn't cut out for the bribing, horse trading and arm twisting required to deal with Congress effectively". Hmm. Who does that sound like?

  8. @Scott Monje, thanks for taking up my argument. I'm basing the small businessman point on the notion that small business is the engine that drives job growth, thus in an environment of unusually extended depressed employment levels, convincing small businesspeople to hire is a critical deliverable of the President's plan.

    Which makes next Thursday's speech somewhat different from the usual POTUS address, and it makes the poor scheduling decision unusually disastrous. For 95%+ of POTUS communications, it matters not at all when he speaks, since they are of the FYI variety. For example, we found out that Bin Laden was dead at midnight, but it could have been 4 AM and made no difference, the President was simply letting the world know.

    Even those communications where he wants you to do something (Giffords speech), he only sort of wants you to do something, in that case, be less violent, but that's a goal that is not specifically connected to any mission of his Presidency.

    Next Thursday couldn't be more different. If you're a small businessman, the President really needs you next Thursday; he arguably desperately needs you, desperately needs you to believe strongly enough in his leadership or plans (or if you prefer, just the US economic prospects) to go out and hire.

    He really needs you this time. And he's letting you know in probably the worst possible circumstances to communicate that message.

    In conclusion, I would almost always agree with the folks who say that catfights between POTUS and Congress are silly and stupid and meaningless, and its better for a President to take the high road. 99% of the time, that's true.

    This is the other 1%, which makes this particular instance of weakness uniquely mortifying.

  9. As charlie and massappeal said, the "malaise" speech went over well with the public at the time. More importantly, it was a warning that America's dependence on foreign oil was a long-term threat to our well-being. Andrew Bacevich, a former Army colonel and generally conservative analyst, has written about this in recent years and credits Carter with being the one president who foresaw the endless quagmire we're still in today in the Middle East and tried to head us off that path.

    For his pains, the Reaganites accused Carter of not believing enough in America's greatness. They then waded into the quagmire themselves, getting hundreds of Marines killed in Lebanon, promptly capitulating and withdrawing US forces (an act that Osama bin Laden well noted), later trading arms to Iran as part of an effort to negotiate with Lebanese terrorists, and all the while arming and trading the Afghan rebels who would later morph into al Quaeda.

    It may be, although I doubt it, that Obama will end up having played Carter to Rick Perry's Reagan. But if so, I could well imagine analysts looking back thirty years from now -- when we're fighting even more viciously over the last ME oil, while China is busy making all the next-generation solar panels and South Korea holds all the key biofuel patents -- and wondering why Obama's prescient vision of "green jobs" and the like wasn't taken more seriously at the time.

  10. Mr. Bernstein,

    Before the 2006 election, many of the libertarian and conservative bloggers were making "pre-mortem" posts about the R's, and how they basically deserved what they were about to get. It was amusing how the R's howled about it, too. There was a similar dynamic in 2008, but not as pronounced.

    You should prepare yourself for something similar now, because it's obviously starting. Steele's article seems to be in that mode, but there will be lefties to follow. No sense you and Chait arguing about "policy"... because this is a plain blog about politics... and we're in the political season now, as Obama well knows and is in fact embracing if not inflaming. And it's the 15-20% who decided elections in 2006, 2008 and 2010 who matter in political season... not those who want to squabble about the vagaries of "policy". Those folks are busy making their minds up firmly, and starting to pencil themselves into this season's pre-mortem. And again, Obama seems to be accelerating the timing of that process.

    But if I was arguing policy, I'd listen carefully to what CSH is referencing. It'd be better politics for Obama, as well. He's gotta start moving off some of his cherished positions, and fast.


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