I have spent the last decade or so trying to understand how I got at the bottom of a stack of leaders that (with a very few bright spots) are either out to lunch, inept, or affirmatively evil. About a year ago, things started to look up and I was ready for a president who not only had a heart and a head but would govern effectively. Half a year ago, I got a new dean who is so nearly doing everything right that I left everything on the table, plus an IOU, in a negotiation over teaching last week, so at the beginning of the summer, the bottom and the top of my authority pyramid checked out OK, which is not bad in many ways. (Actually the mayor and my city councillor are pretty good at what they do; who knows, maybe they read the RBC!). But everything in between – my senators, congressperson, governor, regents of the university, university president, campus chancellor – is between mediocre and a wasteland, especially the last four, who have simply left me speechless at their complete ignorance of what their jobs are and fecklessness the few times they try to do it, and nothing has changed there. We have a gubernatorial election coming up and I see nothing on that horizon that I don’t fear, loathe, or both. My bitterness about this situation is wide and also deep; I hate not being able to respect people I work for, especially when they also work for me.
I wish I could share Mark’s optimism and put Jonathan’s self-protective caution aside, but until I see results I have to adopt the view that Obama has one or two critical pieces missing, and the next three years are going to be mostly heartbreak, the more so if I let myself fall for his speeches again. I am not going to let myself be set up for disillusionment again by this one. Obama has pooched almost everything he’s set himself to – health care, climate, the Massachusetts senate race, Guantanamo, DADT (so far), it goes on and on. A chain of vacillation, days late and dollars short, unnecessary compromises and surrenders. W dealt him a very bad hand, but the voters gave him an extra draw or two, and all I see out of it is a shrinking stack of chips.
The way politics works is, you have a portfolio of conflicts to engage. When you pick the first set, you have a certain amount of each of several kinds of power, and you need to figure out a few you can win going away (to demonstrate and increase the power), a few where you can negotiate a good middle-ground outcome, a few you need to leave for later, and a few crapshoots and jump-balls.
And a few you need to visibly leap on with all four feet and your claws out, even if you can’t win, because some things are just right and you ran on some principles. It’s not just a matter of counting wins; substance matters too. So does the payoff structure: some conflicts can have a good non-zero-sum “bipartisan” outcome, negotiation is appropriate, and you can even learn something from the other side that you didn’t know and get a better result than you could alone. But others have to be fought to the end and won because the other side is wrong in a deep sense and needs to be defeated or because a crappy jerry-built pastiche is actually worse than a clean outcome either way.
Or because their utility function has a big negative coefficient on your success independent of the issue. Especially in the current environment, Obama not only has opponents on issues, but also real enemies, and as the core of the Republican ideology has collapsed intellectually; their record is so visibly, famously, toxic; and the affective tone of legislative process has become so bitter and vengeful (does anyone remember the word comity?), they matter a lot now.
After all that tactical and strategic analysis, you have to actually do the tasks you pick; you don’t have to set out to take Vienna; maybe try for Austerlitz first, but you have to advance on the objectives you do select, stay on the battlefield and be seen to do so, and keep doing it even when the folks on the other side call you very mean names and even shoot at you.
One thing I know I’m not very good at is hiring. Again and again, outfits I work for have taken on someone who looked to me like a really bad pick, and they succeed splendidly, and I’ve expected wonders from people who didn’t deliver. I love my colleagues who are good at this for doing it well, just as I love people who are willing to work twelve hours a day running restaurants (a job I know I would fail at almost instantly) so I can have great meals. It won’t be the first time if I favored the wrong job applicant for Obama’s slot. Similarly, I have my own ideas of how the issues the administration mishandled should have fallen into the boxes described above, but I’m not expert at that. I’m happy to be surprised when someone who is picks an order of battle or makes a Gantt chart I wouldn’t have come up with, and succeeds at stuff. Doing that much better than I can is exactly what I expect from a leader and his or her team.
I don’t know which calls he got most wrong, it’s not my expertise, but I infer from the overall record to date that he just isn’t getting it (or is a deep-down a wuss and backs away too much). It kills me to say it, but I don’t think Obama has the discrimination to see this whole landscape as it is; and/or, he just doesn’t like to fight. Not every articulate, well-educated, humane, smart guy does; Obama never looks happier than when everyone loves him, which is a red flag.
Mr. President, once bitten, twice shy, but I’m way past once, actually gnawed over and badly chewed up in several places. I loved the speech, but I didn’t vote for you to give speeches; I voted for you to be president and use speeches as one of many ways to actually make the world better. Salvaging the little I can, I won’t be in despair and a chump both.
Go ahead, make my day: refute all I’ve said here with some accomplishment. I so want to be able to retract it all.