I just read Matt Bai’s piece for this week’s “Week in Review” section of the NY Times. In it he makes the perfectly sensible point that administrations are undone by the fact or appearance of not just one crisis unmet, but a series of them.
Then he goes blooey, trying to place the Obama adminstration and the BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster into the framework he identifies in describing the demise of the Carter and the second Bush II presidencies. The result is incoherence, leading up to yet another wail for Daddy President to come in and make all the bad stuff go away.
Bai begins his Obama thumbsucking this way:
The man-made catastrophe in the gulf does not yet constitute an existential threat to Mr. Obama’s presidency. (There’s not much Mr. Obama can do about it at this point, anyway, short of slapping on a scuba suit and sticking his hand in the pipe until the relief well is completed.)
Pretty sensible, right? There is a lot of blame to go around for the Deepwater Horizon wreck, and this administration was at least caught unawares of the risks involved in deep water drilling, but no one is claiming that the primary failures were Obama’s. And Bai seems to understand that when you are dealing with a very difficult technical problem, you can’t ask that much of the President.
But then he goes on to make his core point, that thought about accumulating appearances of incompetence or failure in the face of crisis. In essence, he argues, that the Presidency is a matter of theater, and what matters most is being seen to be in control, and not necessarily actually accomplishing anything in the crises. He acknowledges, for example, that Carter was probably done in by runaway inflation, but it was everything from tanks in Afghanistan to the fall of Skylab (no, really) that made him vulnerable. On the other side, Bai tries to argue that Clinton’s high approval ratings had as much to do with his calm after the Columbine shootings as it did with low inflation, budget surpluses and high employment whilst the nation was at peace.
This is, I think, handwaving of the highest order. Bai caps his analysis by noting, again correctly, that one of FDR’s strengths coming in was to seem active in the face of the Great Depression. But this misses the point that more of it worked than not, with the exception of the decision to go for deficit hawkery rather than continued stimulus — and that sustained rise in output and economic activity may have had rather more to do with FDR’s lasting popularity than the mere appearance of effort.
Worse, this passage in the piece signals the moment at which Bai goes in for full self-parody, telling us that “Roosevelt and his intrepid New Dealers would probably be thinking about ways to drain the Gulf of Mexico right about now.”
“Just do something,” you can almost hear Bai scream at Obama. ”Anything.” Doesn’t matter if, as Bai has already told us, he can’t. He should be seen to be solving an unsolvable problem (or at least, one that is unsolvable swiftly and to order).
And why is that so important now, more so than in previous periods of real crisis in American history? Why, of course, because we know that government cannot actually accomplish anything.
In part, this is probably a function of our having lost so much faith in the ability of government generally. There is, after all, a short distance between believing that government doesn’t solve our problems to believing that government actually causes them, and a lot of Americans in the last few decades have made the leap. If tar balls are turning up along the Gulf Coast, then some bureaucrat somewhere must be to blame — and why not the bureaucrat-in-chief?
Here he drinks the kool-aid. It would be a different (and better) piece if Bai were to think just a bit about his easy use of that convenient word “our” having lost faith — who is this we, and how were we constructed? There is no data at all to support this statement — rather, it’s presented as a truth universally acknowledged, and one that emerges (as we will see) organically from social and economic change over the last forty years. That Bai can’t bring himself to note the sustained thirty year attempt to erode government capacity under a succession of GOP presidents is a tell, in my view.
But the headscratcher in that paragraph is the assertion that, for non-tinfoil-hat-wearing Americans, it is a short step to go from saying government is incompetent then government blew up the damn well. I don’t know the polling on this, but I’m going out on a limb and say this is Matt Bai just throwing sh*t out there.
Then there’s this
On a deeper level, though, we may be reacting to our own lack of control as workers, providers and parents. For about 40 years, since the onset of industrial decline, Americans have been trying to negotiate an increasingly unstable economic and cultural landscape, the effects of which are clear in any community where factories or farms (or often both) have withered away — substance abuse, failing schools, higher rates of crime and divorce. The chaos is all around us, and what we ask of a president, increasingly, is to somehow use the instruments of government to rein it in.
Huh? Crime rates are down, and so are divorce rates (see table A3) over the last several years — both facts that have been widely reported, including just two weeks ago in the pages of the distinguished journalistic organ for which Mr. Bai also writes.
If the chaos is all around us it is a creation of something other than the facts on the ground — that GOP attempt to portray an American in crisis, for example. And more important, it doesn’t give the reader any confidence in the analytical skills of a writer when they toss around such easy — and wrong — “facts.” This is basic journalism here: before you say something is so make sure that it is.
Let me offer just a guess, here. I don’t deny that there is frustration and a sense of inadequate governmental response to problems right now. But I don’t think it has much to do with with a cultural landscape in which over forty years or so women got to decide if they wanted to have sex for fun and African Americans learned that they could in fact, by law, vote (this is my interpretation of what the term “cultural landscape” means, more or less).
The economic landscape is more important — but the actual angst derives from what this chart is telling us, and not from any existential sense that we aren’t a steel forging nation anymore. (Bai, born in 1968, may not remember what deindustrialization actually felt like. We are in a vastly different economy now, and its stresses are very different from those days as well.)
Bai goes on to write
The problem here for Mr. Obama is that, almost 18 months after assuming office, he still seems to regard himself as something of an intellectual critic of government, when, in fact, what Americans expect from him now is markedly different. The transition is long behind us, which means the president embodies the government he once assailed and is held accountable, fairly or not, for its failures.
Obama sees himself as an intellectual critic of government? This Obama? Not with you here, man.
The disconnect was on vivid display during Mr. Obama’s news conference late last month, when, despite professing full responsibility for his administration’s response to the leak, he referred several times to what the “federal government” was doing, as if he himself were merely a disappointed spectator like the rest of us.
I guess this means Bai doesn’t like it when a President acknowledges in his rhetoric that he cannot, in fact, scuba dive down to 5,000 feet below sea level and slam his own Presidential hand into a gushing oil well. It might just take one or two other folks, an agency or two, you know, the federal government.
He railed coolly against the “cozy and sometimes corrupt relationship” between oil companies and the government, despite the fact that his administration had been governing for more than a year. And he seemed unbothered admitting to reporters that he didn’t know whether his own director of the Minerals Management Service had been fired or resigned.
I’ll give Bai this one: Obama should have his story clear on the MMS head. The problem is that he is actually right about the cozy and corrupt relationships, which proliferated under his predecessor and have not yet been adequately dealt with.
By the time the president spoke again at the White House and then revisited the gulf on Friday, he seemed genuinely enraged at BP. The writer in him, perhaps, sensed that the oil from a snapped-off pipe on the ocean floor might yet come to signify something deeper about his administration.
Or maybe the President in him sensed that an ocean destroying gusher is something to be enraged about.
But chaos-weary Americans no longer needed him to share their outrage at the leak. They needed him to finally shut it off.
Except, Mr. Bai, see Mr. Bai above: he can’t do that, at least not without enormous technical effort led by the offending party, BP.
This is Bai just giving up. (Or channeling his inner MoDo.)He can’t stand the difficulty of being an adult in the world — or rather, worse, he thinks the rest of us can’t — and he is reduced to wailing, “Papa! Make it stop!”
I get that the polls are saying that Obama has taken a hit over his response to the oil gusher. I think he should: not because he could have solved it any sooner, but because he did in fact, in my view, fail to convey the scale of, the risks inherent, and the time commitment required to confront the crisis as pointedly and as swiftly as he should have. He is the teacher in chief, and he didn’t quite get there this time. Also, I think it is fair to say that the original government response was slow and disorganized, and needed to be much more rapidly reformed.
But this notion that all of America somehow thinks that over the last forty years of significant change in American culture, we’ve suddenly decided that we can only surivive if the President is our daddy is nonsense — or more formally, an assumption not in evidence that cannot therefore be taken as a reliable conclusion.
(And I’m not even going into the ahistoricity of Bai’s piece. This is hardly the first time in American history when cultural and economic change has seemed overwhelming. We’ve gotten by without parental Presidents in the past, and I rather expect we will do so again.)
So , to channel my inner Brad Delong even though it’s important to note that Matt Bai himself is far from terrible, most of the time)…we do need a better press corps.
Images: Jean-Baptiste Charpentier le Vieux, “Louis Jean Marie de Bourbon with his daughter Louise Marie Adélaïde de Bourbon,” 18th c.
Civilian Conservation Corps constructing road, 1933
Georgios Iakovidis, “The Naughty Grandson,” 1884.