Noonan: Where is the competence?

posted at 1:40 pm on May 29, 2010 by Ed Morrissey

In our earlier thread on Chris Matthews, one commenter asked why we consider the MS-NBC host a barometer of conservative opinion, considering Matthews’ deeply liberal worldview.  It matters because the disillusion of people like Matthews, who sold their audiences on the near-perfection of Barack Obama, are instructive moments to see just how far Obama has fallen in public reputation.  After all, conservatives didn’t fawn over a man who had no executive experience and spent most of his legislative career voting “present” rather than showing any leadership.

Well, most conservatives didn’t, anyway.  At least one who succumbed to Obama’s glamour wonders what happened to the cool competence Obama exuded during the presidential campaign.  Peggy Noonan’s column today in the Wall Street Journal sums up Obama’s biggest political problem — the perception of ineptitude:

I don’t see how the president’s position and popularity can survive the oil spill. This is his third political disaster in his first 18 months in office. And they were all, as they say, unforced errors, meaning they were shaped by the president’s political judgment and instincts.

There was the tearing and unnecessary war over his health-care proposal and its cost. There was his day-to-day indifference to the views and hopes of the majority of voters regarding illegal immigration. And now the past almost 40 days of dodging and dithering in the face of an environmental calamity. I don’t see how you politically survive this. …

In his news conference Thursday, President Obama made his position no better. He attempted to act out passionate engagement through the use of heightened language—”catastrophe,” etc.—but repeatedly took refuge in factual minutiae. His staff probably thought this demonstrated his command of even the most obscure facts. Instead it made him seem like someone who won’t see the big picture. The unspoken mantra in his head must have been, “I will not be defensive, I will not give them a resentful soundbite.” But his strategic problem was that he’d already lost the battle. If the well was plugged tomorrow, the damage will already have been done.

The original sin in my view is that as soon as the oil rig accident happened the president tried to maintain distance between the gusher and his presidency. He wanted people to associate the disaster with BP and not him. When your most creative thoughts in the middle of a disaster revolve around protecting your position, you are summoning trouble. When you try to dodge ownership of a problem, when you try to hide from responsibility, life will give you ownership and responsibility the hard way. In any case, the strategy was always a little mad. Americans would never think an international petroleum company based in London would worry as much about American shores and wildlife as, say, Americans would. They were never going to blame only BP, or trust it.

In other words, the President has been voting “present” for most of the first five weeks of the disaster.  It’s not as if it’s the first time Obama tried to avoid responsibility for an issue or refuse to show leadership.  Many of us wrote extensively about Obama’s pattern of avoidance during the election — and suggested that Democrats try Obama in a lesser executive position first, such as Governor of Illinois, before nominating him for the top spot, in order to make sure he was up for the job.

Unfortunately, some conservatives such as Noonan rebutted those arguments, choosing instead to see cool competence instead of complete inexperience and a pattern of avoidance.  One can do that as a legislator with few ill effects, because in the end others will choose to lead.  When that person assumes the top executive job, especially without any experience and seasoning for the job, things fall apart when disaster strikes as they have here.  Only those who willingly allowed themselves to be enchanted by charisma and public relations could possibly act surprised when inexperience leads to incompetence.

I like Peggy Noonan; she was wrong about Obama, and she’s starting to realize just how wrong she was.  She also concludes with some first-class analysis:

What continues to fascinate me is Mr. Obama’s standing with Democrats. They don’t love him. Half the party voted for Hillary Clinton, and her people have never fully reconciled themselves to him. But he is what they have. They are invested in him. In time—after the 2010 elections go badly—they are going to start to peel off. The political operative James Carville, the most vocal and influential of the president’s Gulf critics, signaled to Democrats this week that they can start to peel off. He did it through the passion of his denunciations.

The disaster in the Gulf may well spell the political end of the president and his administration, and that is no cause for joy. It’s not good to have a president in this position—weakened, polarizing and lacking broad public support—less than halfway through his term. That it is his fault is no comfort. It is not good for the stability of the world, or its safety, that the leader of “the indispensable nation” be so weakened. I never until the past 10 years understood the almost moral imperative that an American president maintain a high standing in the eyes of his countrymen.

That is precisely why we shouldn’t have elected a man with no executive experience to the toughest executive job in the world.  We need strong leadership, especially in times of crisis, not a man who prefers to vote present rather than lead.  And we probably wouldn’t have elected Obama or even nominated him this time around if the national media had done half of the job vetting Obama that they did with Sarah Palin, an atrocious failure documented best by John Ziegler in his film Media Malpractice.

As I said earlier, I like Peggy Noonan, and I’m glad to see that the scales have fallen from her eyes — but she still gets a Captain Louis Renault award for being shocked, shocked! at the incompetence of Barack Obama:


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