Like millions of others around the world, I was elated when Barack Obama beat John McCain in last November’s presidential election. I had been an early fan of McCain’s, but by election day I had come to regard him as a volatile and cantankerous old bastard. By contrast, Obama seemed a genuine centrist liberal who would tackle problems with a healthy dose of realism.
Not surprisingly, his cabinet picks were sensible, and the transition was handled with consummate professionalism. I wasn’t all that excited about his inauguration speech, but then I’ve never been a great admirer of his oratory (he ought to lay off the metaphor). I liked the reference to “non-believers”, though; and his offer of friendship to the “Muslim world”, even if I cringed at the term, was admirable.
His first acts as president were stunning. The rapid-fire executive orders, the humble journey to Capitol Hill, the interview with al-Arabiya — you might disagree with the substance, but the symbolism was breathtaking.
And that was only his first week.
But then came the second week. And the third. And suddenly things were looking a lot less dandy.
First, there was Geithner. Then Daschle. Then Killefer. At the same time, the president’s tough new ethics guidelines were being skirted by… the president himself. And for what? Because he “needed” some guy. Sandy Levinson at Balkinization puts it well:
One of Ike’s most pathetic moments, many decades ago, was his resistance to firing Sherman Adams, of vicuna coat fame (younger readers can Google the episode) because, Ike said, ‘I need him.’ I am, as everyone knows, a very, very strong and elated supporter of our new President, but I would be dismayed to think that he ‘needs’ any given individual to the degree that he will overlook behavior that ought to set off alarms. And, to be clear, the alarm is not that Daschle of Geithner will embezzle federal funds; I’m sure that is not the case. Rather, the alarm is precisely that they further serve to reinforce the view of many in the United States, both Democrats and Republicans, that the elites who inhabit our dominant institutions, whether public or private, simply feel entitled to play by a different set of rules.
And that’s not all.
As someone who pays close attention to America’s exploits abroad, I’ve been perturbed by the apparent lack of strategy for forward movement. I haven’t seen any indication that Obama will handle Iraq’s brewing troubles any better than his predecessor. In Afghanistan, the signals have been mixed at best. Predator strikes in Pakistan continue; administration officials talk tough about expanding the war; and a Mandarin-speaking general is named ambassador to a country where Dari-speaking civilians have generally fared better.
What does all this amount to? I don’t know. Maybe I just don’t get it. I really hope so, because the other possibility, as Stephen Walt writes, is just too terrifying:
Looking over the administration’s main appointees, it’s hard to see the person (or people) who are going to provide the sort of clarifying, conceptual architecture that will help President Obama sort out the important from the trivial, and then help him figure out how to approach them in an integrated way. Whatever her other gifts may be, Secretary of State Clinton has never articulated a clear strategic vision of her own. Her chief aides are traditional liberal internationalists who are good at devising laundry lists of problems to be solved but less inclined to set priorities or to devise integrated strategies for achieving them.