Friday, January 30, 2009

Sullivan, Obama and Bush

No, not still another Washington law firm. I'm reacting to this post by Andrew Sullivan.

I'm not diametrically opposed to Sullivan's point of view, but I have some comments:

The jury is still out on President Obama. He may turn out largely to be the type of president that Andrew describes, but one cannot judge his presidency on the basis of his inaugural address. Sullivan was also strongly supportive of Bush toward the beginning of his administration. He may want to, as they say, curb his enthusiasm, this time around.

Chances are, we will remain, de facto, at war, for much, if not all, of Obama's presidency. In that sphere of activity, a president would be negligent if he did not exercise his power. That power is constitutionally based, but is also constitutionally limited. To state that the presidency is not about power goes too far, as I see it. Obama might exercise his power differently than Bush did, but as he is challenged in the international arena (e.g., North Korea's saber-rattling today) my guess is that he'll find it more difficult to differentiate himself from Bush than he did during the campaign.

I think it's safe to say that all presidents provoke charges of trampling on the prerogatives of the other branches of the federal government. Again, they probably would not be doing their job properly, if that never happened. The "time will tell" concept also applies here; it will be interesting to see how Obama handles such situations.

I find one of Sullivan's comments especially interesting: "Hence the obvious shock of some Republican Congressman at debating with a president who seemed interested in actual conversation, as opposed to pure politics."

Americans tend to use the words "politics", "politician", etc., in a pejorative sense. I take this comment by Andrew to mean that he's becoming Americanized. His compatriots in Britain routinely use those words to describe the process of self-government, and the people who work in that process, with no negative connotation. That's similar to their use of "scheme" to mean a plan that does not necessarily involve wrongdoing.

I would like to suggest that perhaps the problem has been too little politics, not too much. Bush has been fond of saying that he didn't take opinion polls to decide what course of action to take. In a limited sense, that's proper. But the practice of politics in a democracy involves translating the political will of the people into government policy. At some level, in some way, public opinion needs to be taken into account. I would argue that Bush did too little of that, which was, of course, reflected in his declining poll numbers.

That's what Sullivan describes as Bush's "monarchical sense of the office". But it's a delicate balancing act between being a "decider", and considering public opinion. And Obama has not yet proved that he can strike that balance.

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