We certainly aren’t British. After those terrorist bombings in London a few years ago – in the Tube not the subway of course – that city was plastered with posters that said it all – “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Brits pride themselves on their steely self-control – on their refusal to overreact, much less panic. The best revenge is to persist in being who you are, doing what you normally do. The Blitz proved that. Hitler couldn’t terrorize Britain. He couldn’t break their will. They simply did what was necessary to rid the world of that nonsense, slowly and methodically. Early on they broke his Enigma code and then outmaneuvered him without him ever knowing a thing about it. There was no gloating. They were Sherlock Holmes to his Professor Moriarty. Hitler blustered and bragged about the Thousand Year Reich – his speeches were legendary – and Churchill calmly said let’s do what we must, and do it well, and we’ll be just fine. It’s a cultural thing. James Bond, with his cool sophistication and amusing quip no matter how dire the situation, had to be British. There’s no American Bond – Our Man Flint and Matt Helm couldn’t pull off suave. Mel Brooks realized this when he created Maxwell Smart – the ultimate parody of suave. In our spy movies the heroes are brash cowboys of one sort or another – like Tom Cruise in those endless Mission Impossible things – and there’s never been an American Sherlock Holmes. We get Sam Spade and Mike Hammer. We don’t keep calm and carry on. We do something, damn it.
That’s what happened after 9/11 – Bush stood on that pile of rubble with his bullhorn and vowed we’d bring these guys to justice, and kept saying this was like the Old West – we’d get that Osama fellow, dead or alive – and we went off to war in Afghanistan, then Iraq for no good reason, other than it was doing something. We’d show THEM – whoever they were. There was no methodical and quiet rolling up of al-Qaeda as if it were some sort of extra-national criminal conspiracy, which it kind of was. We’d go to war with real nations, and we’d even torture who we wanted – the gloves were off, as Dick Cheney liked to say.
That didn’t do much good. Obama was the one who has quietly and methodically rolled-up al-Qaeda. There’s not much left of it now, and Obama was the one who got that Osama fellow – dead, not alive, but gone nonetheless. Bush’s approval ratings were sky-high for months after his bullhorn speech and tough talk – we were going to do something, something dramatic and big that would make the world sit up and take notice, which is exactly what Americans wanted. We’d rub their faces in it. Obama just got the job done. His approval ratings barely budged after he announced bin Laden was gone, because his way of doing things was the problem. Sure, he got things done, but somehow it all seemed so un-American. There was no swagger, and no pride, and no righteous anger. Everything was done with quiet steady competence, behind the scenes. Maybe Obama is really British. Add that to the many theories of why he is just not one of us.
He certainly is a puzzle. No one knows what to make of his reaction to the three current scandals – the Benghazi business that seems to be not much of a scandal now, the Department of Justice going after a wide array of AP phone records to catch some asshole that compromised our moles in al-Qaeda, even if AP and the rest of the media are appalled, and the IRS picking on the Tea Party, if they did. Obama seems passive about all of this, just letting the actual facts slowly and surely come to light. That’s working, but it’s not dynamic at all. He really is keeping calm and carrying on – talking about jobs and the economy of all things.
Someone needs to explain this, and someone does, his former speechwriter Jon Favreau with How Obama Handles Crisis – who points out this isn’t exactly the first crisis Obama has ever faced:
Sometime after the infamous Denver debate last fall, which by most media accounts should have forced the president to immediately quit the race and resign in shame, a few of us who had been with him since the earliest days tried to assess where the performance ranked on our list of All-Time Worst ObamaWorld Moments.
It was an exercise in gallows humor, but it lifted our spirits to recall how many times the president had been so mistakenly and definitively counted out over the last eight years. There was the New York Post headline from October 3, 2007, that always hung in Bill Burton’s campaign office: “CLINTON NEARLY READY FOR HER CORONATION.” And who could forget where they were when the news broke about the Reverend Wright or Bittergate scandals that Washington just knew would destroy Obama’s candidacy? In early September 2008, a Politico story even ran the following quote from a Democratic pollster I’ve still never heard of: “A failure to take Sarah Palin seriously will cost the Obama campaign.”
And all this was before we got to the White House.
Favreau notes that Obama laughed at their list because he had one of his own:
The meeting in the winter of 2008 where his new economic team told him just how deep the free fall would be. The moment after the Massachusetts special election when it appeared that health-care reform was dead. The debt-limit crisis in the summer of 2011. The oil spill. The first day he greeted military caskets at Dover Air Force Base. Fort Hood. Tucson.
I was reminded of this by an anecdote in Peter Baker’s New York Times story from Thursday: “As he was traveling on Marine One on Monday, Mr. Obama took note of news reports describing last Friday as a terrible day. ‘You know what was actually a terrible day?’ an aide recalled him saying. ‘The day Benghazi actually happened.'”
Obama’s list consisted of actual crises, not purely political ones, and Favreau is struck by that:
A biracial, freshman senator named Barack Hussein Obama wouldn’t be president if he didn’t possess ample political talent. But to say that his decisions are driven primarily by politics is to fundamentally misunderstand the man who occupies the Oval Office. Bailing out the auto industry wasn’t even popular in Michigan at the time the president made the decision. No one would mistake health-care reform for a political winner. The president’s national-security team couldn’t give him more than a 50 percent probability that Osama bin Laden was in that compound, and a miss or worse could have ended his political career.
The keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention is what catapulted Barack Obama into the national spotlight, but the first speech that truly showed how he might lead as president came before that, in 2002. It was the speech announcing his opposition to a war in Iraq that most other Democrats with national political ambitions supported. Obama famously noted that he wasn’t opposed to all war, but rather “a dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.”
Many of the answers to recent questions about how the president makes decisions can be found in those words.
Think of Churchill – let’s do what we must, the right thing, and do it well, and we’ll be just fine:
In the case of Benghazi, he was willing to accept the harsh judgments and sweeping recommendations of the independent Accountability Review Board because he holds himself responsible for the lives of the diplomats and intelligence officers he sends to dangerous places – something he said seven months ago. But he won’t stomach more of the same debate about Sunday-show talking points that, 100 emails later, amounts to little more than the same interagency turf battles that accompany every piece of writing released by the federal government. I know, I was a speechwriter there.
In the case of the AP phone records, Obama the former constitutional-law professor cares deeply about the balance between freedom and security. This is the president who began the foreign-policy section of his inaugural with the words “We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” And he wants Congress to debate and finally pass a media-shield law. But can you imagine if the president of the United States had quashed a court-ordered subpoena in an independent investigation he wasn’t even supposed to know about? A subpoena aimed at finding the person in his own administration who leaked classified information that may have jeopardized American lives? Talk about a political scandal.
And in the case of the IRS, the president must have been furious when he learned the news. I can remember how angry he was during the GSA debacle (parties in Vegas; think there were clowns and jugglers involved? Wow). He was angry because he knows that a progressive vision of government requires faith that government is efficient, and responsive, and trustworthy – and the handful of morons who break that trust sully the reputation of all the federal employees who uphold those values every day.
But the president was not willing to fire a bunch of people before knowing all the relevant facts. He was not willing to go on a witch hunt before the investigation of the independent Inspector General was complete. That was more important to him than his short-term political standing in the eyes of the Washington press corps.
Yep, he’s an odd duck:
The handwringers and bed-wetters in the D.C. punditocracy should know that Barack Obama will never be on their timeline. He does not value being first over being right. He will not spend his presidency chasing news cycles. He will not shake up his White House staff just because of some offhand advice offered to Politico by a longtime Washingtonian or a nameless Democrat who’s desperately trying to stay relevant. And if that means Dana Milbank thinks he’s too passive; if it means that Jim VandeHei will keep calling him arrogant and petulant; if it means that Chris Matthews will whine about him not enjoying the presidency, then so be it. He’ll live.
This is the essence of keeping calm and carrying on, which Brits would find admirable and Americans find puzzling, and which infuriates the pundits, but it is what it is:
Barack Obama understands his own limitations and the limitations of his office. He has made mistakes and he will likely make more. But this is a president who has seen the nation through many serious and consequential crises, and he has done so without losing the core of who he is or why he ran for this job in the first place.
Bush loved to compare himself to Churchill, as did many a conservative pundit, but they chose the wrong American president. Ask any Brit. Ask Andrew Sullivan:
Favreau knows him as well as anyone – and that rings true. It’s also a deep political strength. Most mortals cannot manage that no-drama glide – I sure can’t. Hillary is more easily provoked into hunkering down rather than sailing through. What troubles me, though, is not that the IRS clusterfuck and the VA backlog are signs of malevolence, but rather that they are indications of a government that doesn’t work right. And no president should glide past that.
Sullivan yokes those two things together:
We’ve been at war for over a decade. The imminence of vast numbers of disability and pension claims can have been no surprise for the VA. And yet they are two years’ behind schedule. And the more I read about the IRS scandal, the more it seems to me less a political campaign than complete mismanagement.
Over three years, as the office struggled with a growing caseload of advocacy groups seeking tax exemptions, responsibility for the cases moved from one group of specialists to another, and the Determinations Unit, which handles all nonprofit applications, was reorganized. One batch of cases sat ignored for months. Few if any of the employees were experts on tax law, contributing to waves of questionnaires about groups’ political activity and donors that top officials acknowledge were improper.
“The IRS is pretty dysfunctional to begin with, and this case brought all those dysfunctions to their worst,” said Paul Streckfus, a former IRS employee who runs a newsletter devoted to tax-exempt organizations. “People were coming and going, asking for advice and not getting it, and sometimes forgetting the cases existed.”
Much of this arises from the Supreme Court’s unleashing of so much money into the electoral process via groups that were not easy to assess as legit. But the IRS had plenty of advance notice, and yet no one seemed to foresee the challenge or the dangers of getting things wrong. If you want to know why Americans remain leery of government, it’s because of this combination of power and incompetence. All bureaucracies – private and public – are susceptible to this, but when it comes to veterans being denied benefits or political groups being effectively hazed to get the right tax designation, we have a right to question government’s expansion.
That’s the real problem here, it seems to me. The right is paranoid and delusional enough to turn all of this in their minds to a Nixonian war on them. You can’t do much about that, except note that it will likely improve their chances in 2014. But the reasonable center worries simply that government is incompetent and expensive and too complex. If liberals want to restore an activist government, this is the core area they need to focus on – especially when it comes to implementing universal healthcare.
Yes, Sullivan drifts from the topic, as he has his own axe to grind, but the point remains – sometimes, even if it seems odd to brash and happily swaggering Americans, you want someone who will quietly and methodically do the job, whatever it is, often behind the scenes like Sherlock Holmes, or the always cool James Bond. It’s a new thing which Joe Gandelman at the Moderate Voice puts this way:
The media and many weblogs speculate about whether Obama will be “another Reagan” or “another Carter.” They have it wrong: he marches to his own drummer; he seems comfortable about who he is, and in the future a future President may be described as “another Obama.”
The jury is still out on what that means – and the 24/7 media punditry cycle is not the jury that will decide the judgment on history. It could be good, could be bad – but it’ll be Obama good or bad.
Yes, Obama is at it again:
President Obama addressed the graduates of the all-male historically black Morehouse College on Sunday, sharing with them his views about what it meant to be a good man – a vision that included gay men.
Obama told the graduates, “Be the best husband to your wife, or your boyfriend, or your partner.” The line was powerful and immediately noticed by the students, who stirred, leading the president to raise a finger and seek silence. Once the audience quieted, he added, “Be the best father you can be to your children. Because nothing is more important.”
There he is, doing what must be done, assuming things will be fine:
The words, spoken by the first black president to an overwhelmingly male and black audience at a school that prides itself on its history and understanding of black masculinity, answered an era of unfair stereotypes in the negative.
Obama later went on to tell the graduates of Martin Luther King Jr.’s alma mater that the “sting of discrimination” that many of them have felt was shared by “gay and lesbian Americans,” who feel that sting “when a stranger passes judgment on their parenting skills or the love that they share.”
What’s more, the line that stirred the crowd wasn’t even supposed to be as strident as Obama made it. In the prepared remarks released by the White House before Obama gave the speech, the line as written was, “Be the best husband to your wife, or boyfriend to your partner, or father to your children that you can be.”
The slight change, about which the White House gave no comment, made explicit what had been written as, perhaps, a veiled reference to gay relationships. Directed at the male graduates, Obama referenced “your boyfriend.” In the prepared remarks, only “your wife” and “your partner” – a gender-neutral wording – were mentioned.
He ad-libbed it, to be more direct about things, as Slate’s William Saletan says:
The speech was about what it means to be a man. The president of the United States, who until a year ago didn’t support same-sex marriage, has just put an official stamp of masculinity on male homosexuality.
Here too Andrew Sullivan has a few things to say:
Every now and again, an event happens that makes you see much more clearly how divorced from its previous ideals the GOP has become. Obama’s speech at Morehouse was something every conservative has always asked of African-American public figures. We have in Obama a black man raised by a single mother who is now, as even his critics acknowledge, a dedicated father to two daughters, whom he obviously adores. If the right is concerned about the black family, they should be falling over themselves to celebrate what Obama’s family is, and means. But they don’t. It would kill them to say anything gracious about this president.
Drudge yesterday cherry-picked only those parts of the speech that could divide people racially, only those moments when Obama dared to recognize the discrimination and difficulties of young black men – before urging them to overcome them. There’s a racial nastiness here that decent voters still hear and that Republicans have deployed constantly. Their historic refusal to cooperate even one iota with the first black president betrays, it seems to me, a staggering lack of grace and historical sense.
But as with everything Obama says, the speech balanced calls for equality with an admonition that personal responsibility is the inextricable complement to equality. And he did something more in the interstices.
Yep, he put an official stamp of masculinity on male homosexuality, and Sullivan offers a letter he received from a member of the Morehouse faculty:
Morehouse is a college dedicated to African American men, the only one of its type in the country. To hear the first African-American male U.S. president address a class of 500+ African-American men was moving, especially as he touched on his personal struggles of not having a father in the home.
But the reason I’m writing to you though is because he gave two shout-outs to gays. He encouraged the young men to be a better husband to their wife but then added “or to your husband or partner”. Later, he told them that their experiences as African-American men should make them more empathetic to others who feel left out, such as Hispanics because of their immigration status, gays and lesbians because of who they love, and Muslims because of how they worship. The ease with which he addresses gay issues now is striking to me. Just like with the second inaugural address, it’s just a part of his normal speaking. It is even more noteworthy because Morehouse once had a reputation as a homophobic place due to several factors, including a student beating about ten years back.
This speech reminded me once again why I supported this man and continue to do so.
Sullivan, ever the Brit, adds this:
While Washington obsesses over scandals that so far have no connection to him, the president stays calm and carries on.
Yeah, he does, even if that seems an utterly foreign concept to most Americans. We prefer our presidents to be loudly righteous, or outraged and angry, or firm and steely and nasty, or at least extroverted. Quiet competence just won’t do, except that after eight years of George Bush, we chose quiet competence for good reason. Maybe we’ll eventually get used to it.