The empty-podium presidency

On some weeks, finding a column topic can be a difficult decision.  After yesterday’s disastrous performance by Barack Obama in responding — three days later — to the S&P downgrade, I had no trouble at all selecting a topic for my column at The Week.  And it turns out that I’m not alone, on the Left as well as the Right, but we’ll get to that in a moment.  I take the image that most viewers and reporters had of the White House Dining Room podium at Obama’s scheduled time to speak and call it an analogy for Obama’s leadership:

When the news began to leak in the late afternoon Friday, and the announcement came in the evening that the S&P had indeed downgraded American debt for the first time, the White House spin team tried pushing back, but ended up contradicting itself. Starting on Friday night, Geithner and others at the White House insisted that S&P made a $2 trillion error —ironic, considering that this administration has twice made $2-trillion errors in its economic projections in the last two years — and that the downgrade was entirely invalid. At the same time, Democrats such as Sen. John Kerry, former DNC chair Howard Dean, and Obama’s closest political adviser David Axelrod insisted that the S&P downgrade was valid, and was entirely the fault of the Tea Party that bullied Obama into a bad deal.

The only person left out of the debate after the S&P downgrade announcement was Obama himself. He spent all weekend incommunicado at Camp David, and initial reports of his schedule Monday showed only closed-door meetings — and two evening fundraisers for his re-election campaign. The White House changed course mid-morning and promised an Obama statement on the downgrade for 1 p.m. At that point, Obama had about two hours to write a speech after an entire weekend to consider the issue, and that stretched to almost three hours thanks to his 52-minute late arrival at the podium. There was plenty of time to offer new ideas, new approaches, and a specific plan designed to boost confidence in American economic leadership.

Instead, Obama offered nothing new in his speech. Every component of it might just have been copied from the series of media appearances Obama made in the weeks before the debt-ceiling deal. Obama even mentioned more spending as part of the way forward, talking about “repair[ing] our roads and bridges and airports,” the kind of “shovel-ready” projects that even Obama knows are myth rather than reality. …

The empty podium proved to be a powerful message about this presidency. Obama has run out of ideas and has now been reduced to recycling the same meaningless sound bites at an endless series of media appearances. The president signaled to the markets that America has no leadership at the moment — a message that corroborates the S&P analysis.

I suspected that a number of conservative columnists and pundits would concur in this analysis.  Today’s Wall Street Journal has two columns today that cover roughly the same territory, especially this one from Bret Stephens on Obama’s vaunted intellectual capacity:

Socrates taught that wisdom begins in the recognition of how little we know. Mr. Obama is perpetually intent on telling us how much he knows. Aristotle wrote that the type of intelligence most needed in politics is prudence, which in turn requires experience. Mr. Obama came to office with no experience. Plutarch warned that flattery “makes itself an obstacle and pestilence to great houses and great affairs.” Today’s White House, more so than any in memory, is stuffed with flatterers.

Much is made of the president’s rhetorical gifts. This is the sort of thing that can be credited only by people who think that a command of English syntax is a mark of great intellectual distinction. Can anyone recall a memorable phrase from one of Mr. Obama’s big speeches that didn’t amount to cliché? As for the small speeches, such as the one we were kept waiting 50 minutes for yesterday, we get Triple-A bromides about America remaining a “Triple-A country.” Which, when it comes to long-term sovereign debt, is precisely what we no longer are under Mr. Obama.

Then there is Mr. Obama as political tactician. He makes predictions that prove false. He makes promises he cannot honor. He raises expectations he cannot meet. He reneges on commitments made in private. He surrenders positions staked in public. He is absent from issues in which he has a duty to be involved. He is overbearing when he ought to be absent. At the height of the financial panic of 1907, Teddy Roosevelt, who had done much to bring the panic about by inveighing against big business, at least had the good sense to stick to his bear hunt and let J.P. Morgan sort things out. Not so this president, who puts a new twist on an old put-down: Every time he opens his mouth, he subtracts from the sum total of financial capital. …

But it takes actual smarts to understand that glibness and self-belief are not sufficient proof of genuine intelligence. Stupid is as stupid does, said the great philosopher Forrest Gump. The presidency of Barack Obama is a case study in stupid does.

The WSJ editorial today focuses on the irrational praise heaped on Obama’s intellect without any evidence and before any achievement, which reminds them of another Democrat in the White House:

Three decades before Mr. Obama told his people “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” Times columnist Tom Wicker wrote that “Mr. Carter seems to have made the restoration of the people’s faith in themselves his primary campaign strategy.”

Anthony Lewis noted how listeners come away “struck most of all by how smart Carter is,” and he found the Georgian’s bid for the presidency “a little reminiscent of John Kennedy’s emergence in 1960.” Picking up the theme, R.W. Apple likened Mr. Carter to JFK in the way he persuaded skeptics that his faith was no threat to the separation of church and state. After interviewing the candidate “who saw it as his purpose to save America,” Norman Mailer told readers of the Times magazine “the wonder of it was that he was believable.”

Then there’s realist theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. During the 2008 campaign, Mr. Obama proved his intellectual chops when, in response to a question about Niebuhr from a New York Times columnist, he replied, “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.” The column went on to describe Mr. Obama’s campaign as “an attempt to thread the Niebuhrian needle.”

Alas, even here Jimmy Carter got there first. The frontispiece of his campaign biography “Why Not the Best” features one of his favorite quotations from Niebuhr: “The sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world.” Scotty Reston duly noted Mr. Carter’s admiration for Niebuhr in a Times column written when the future President Obama was just 14 years old.

In other words, it’s not just the way President Obama’s policies have not worked out that invites the Jimmy Carter parallel. It’s also the over-the-top praise each received before entering office. In both 1976 and 2008, each Democrat was presented as the kind of smart, cool, new politico who was going to—fill in the cliché—”transcend politics as we know it,” “appeal across traditional lines,” “bring America together,” etc.

Of course, all of this is expected from the Right, which wasn’t likely to be impressed by Obama anyway.  However, as Richard Cohen’s column this morning shows, the Left is beginning to wake up to the lack of substance at 1600 Pennsylvania, too, and Cohen isn’t alone at the Washington Post in this realization.  Dana Milbank and I echo each other in our columns today, which has to be something of a first:

The first draft of his schedule for Monday contained no plans to comment on the downgrading of the U.S. credit rating by Standard & Poor’s. Then the White House announced that he would speak at 1 p.m. A second update changed that to 1:30. At 1:52, Obama walked into the State Dining Room to read his statement. Judging from the market reaction, he should have stuck with his original instinct.

“No matter what some agency may say, we’ve always been and always will be a AAA country,” Obama said, as if comforting a child who had been teased by the class bully. ….

He reminded all that the situation isn’t his fault (the need for deficit reduction “was true the day I took office”), he blamed the other side (“we knew . . . a debate where the threat of default was used as a bargaining chip could do enormous damage to our economy”) and he revisited the same proposals he had previously offered to little effect: extending unemployment benefits and the payroll tax cut, and spending more on infrastructure projects.

This, he said, is “something we can do as soon as Congress gets back,” along with further deficit reduction. “I intend to present my own recommendations over the coming weeks,” he said.

Over the coming weeks? As soon as Congress gets back?

Bear in mind that while Obama claimed that the need for deficit reduction “was true the day I took office,” Obama has offered no solutions since the day he took office.  His last budget plan, in late January, increased the rate of deficit spending, which is why it failed to get a single vote in the Senate that his own party controls.  In April, Obama pledged to put forward a plan to reduce the deficit and still has yet to produce it. Spending more on infrastructure, by the way, is not a deficit-reducing exercise, as his Porkulus plan from 2009 proved all too well.

These columns all have one thread in common: Obama has run out of ideas.  He has no Plan B.  Instead, he only has generalities and platitudes so threadbare that even his usual allies are forced to notice it.  To that end, I’ve set yesterday’s speech to a piece of music that I think sums up Obama’s message yesterday much more quickly and better than Obama did.  Be sure to listen to the lyrics of Caroline Af Ugglas’ “Nothing Left to Say,” although I’d avoid the video: