Robert Kaplan makes an excellent point concerning the Presidency of Barack Obama; we haven’t seen much of it. As a consequence, we really don’t have any idea what kind of President Obama is going to be. He hasn’t faced all that many challenges, he has basically operated from a position of immense political strength, and he still has the goodwill of the American people–although, it should be noted anew, that his poll ratings for a President so early in his term are not all that impressive. In short, we haven’t seen Obama operate when times are tough, when his back is against the wall, and when his political capital is depleted. We don’t know much about the strengths he has in reserve. We don’t know whether he will shrink in the face of a crisis, or whether he will rise to the occasion. A little more than a hundred days into the new Administration, and the President is still a blank slate.
In some ways, I find this to be a cause for hope. Although I didn’t vote for him, Barack Obama is my President, and I want him to do well. He comes from my city (Chicago) and my onetime neighborhood which I still go back to quite often (Hyde Park), so regional pride alone makes me want to root for him. It would be delightful if a right-of-center libertarian-conservative like me could look at the Obama Administration and pronounce it surprisingly impressive. I hope to be able to say and write as much in the future. I shall be the last person to object to any plans the President may have to pleasantly astonish me while he is in office.
At the same time, I don’t think there is any doubt that Kaplan’s piece is designed to raise alarms. and raise them it does. Since we do not know what kind of leader Barack Obama will make when times get really tough, we have to live with a sense of insecurity and concern. Since we don’t know whether our President will rise to the occasion at a time of crisis, we have to hope that as few crises as possible confront him. Of course, no one wants an American President to be besieged by crisis and worry, but previous American Presidents were better known to the public, and there is a comfort–or at least, a sense of fatalism–to be derived from intimate knowledge concerning a President’s ability to respond to a crisis. Whether we believe that our President will do well, or will do poorly, there is a value in knowing how a President will meet a challenge, if only so that we can prepare ourselves for what might happen when that challenge rears its head.
But because Barack Obama has spent so little time in the public eye, because we still know so little about him, and perhaps especially because we have not yet seen him respond to adversity, we are naturally and rightfully insecure concerning the ability of his Administration to weather a particular storm. One hopes that the President will do well. But will he? Who really knows?
As Donald Rumsfeld might say, we go to govern with the President we have, so we shall see how Barack Obama handles the challenges that turn the hairs of Presidents gray. But if I may be so intemperate, perhaps the next time we have a Presidential election, we ought to look for a candidate with a proven record when it comes to crisis management. Reasonable people cannot, after all, find all of this uncertainty reassuring.