Sunday, February 14, 2010

Presidential Brilliance

by Richard Crews
There is an interesting op-ed in this morning's NY Times on "great" and failed presidents. It lists "nine greats and near-greats: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, followed in various rank order [of various historians] by Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, James Polk, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Harry Truman." It also lists "those men judged by history to be presidential failures--James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, Millard Fillmore, and Warren Harding." (It takes the Historian's Fifth in not listing Bush II among the worst because he is too recent to judge.) Clinton could have been great--he was brilliant and charismatic--but for two overriding problems: he got no great historical crises to confront, and he stumbled personally and pissed away his power (well, it wasn't piss actually, but that was the organ).

Obama has the brilliance and charisma to be one of the greatest presidents. Moreover, he has great historical crises to confront--BOY, does he ever! (a worldwide economic meltdown; two long and unpopular wars; and newly evident, impending ecologic Armageddon--in addition, the impending national bankruptcy from health-care costs, and the crises in trade imbalance and education are also tragically severe, but they have less glitz).

Obama has stumbled a bit during his first year in office in allowing Washington partisanship to escalate into legislative paralysis. Like Clinton, Obama (despite comparable political wizardry) did not handle well the court of public opinion (manipulated by a disloyal opposition). Some say this was largely because of the hyper-partisan approach of Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, and Harry Reid, Majority Leader of the Senate. But Obama's hands-off approach to the legislature contributed to the decline of legislature-executive relations.

Obama has a three-part plan of action to deal with this. First, he has expanded (and plans to further expand) the power of the president to govern in the absence of legislative effectiveness--through executive orders, recess appointments, signing letters, and increased executive initiative under existing legislation. Second, he has already begun to go around Reid and Pelosi in courting (and shaming) Republican legislators. Third, he has recognized the need to take his case, armed with his personal charisma and rhetorical brilliance, to the court of public appeal--via town meetings, media appearances, and savvy press releases.

Whether this will be enough to turn the tide and allow Obama's brilliance to come through and address effectively the nation's crises is an unanswered question--a work in progress--chillingly important--exciting to watch.