Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Mae West presidency

By Donald Sensing


Mae West (1893-1980) was one of Hollywood's first screen bombshells and was known for her bawdy double-entendres and other quips. She came to mind when I read of President Obama's recent fail in Copenhagen. Many commentators have wondered why he put the prestige of the presidency at stake when, the outcome of Chicago's Olympic bid was always in doubt; second, the selection of an Olympic venue does not rise to the level of concern of the personal attention of the most powerful office in the world; and third, support even in Chicago for the games was dropping like a rock for the weeks leading up to the vote by the IOC.

Mae West can help answer the question. But first, let's take a look at the prestige risk. The Times' (UK) writer Tim Reid says that "Obama’s Olympic failure will only add to doubts about his presidency."
There has been a growing narrative taking hold about Barack Obama’s presidency in recent weeks: that he is loved by many, but feared by none; that he is full of lofty vision, but is actually achieving nothing with his grandiloquence.

Chicago’s dismal showing yesterday, after Mr Obama’s personal, impassioned last-minute pitch, is a stunning humiliation for this President. It cannot be emphasised enough how this will feed the perception that on the world stage he looks good — but carries no heft.
Then we come to "President Perks" by Edward Bernard Glick.
Have you ever wondered why our Barack Obama, not noted for devotion to hard work in his previous jobs as a law associate, community organizer, state senator, and U.S. senator, raced around America, risking life, limb, and laryngitis, crying "change we can believe in," and begging the voters to send him to the White House as the President of the United States? ...

Mr. Obama ran for the highest office in the land because of the perks that go with it: Air Force One, Camp David, rent-free living quarters, chefs, chauffeurs, valets, bodyguards, and countless modern-day equivalents of Greek slaves and Turkish janissaries.
This seems rather overstated to me and also off target. What seems to be motivating Mr. Obama's performance as chief executive is not the perks of the office (although I don't think they play a small part). I think what we are witnessing is a combination of two factors:
  • A Mae West personality coupled with,
  • The return of the Peter Principle
We have here a Mae West presidency, which I illustrate with two quotes of the platinum blondeshell:

1. It's better to be looked over than overlooked.

2. There's no such thing as bad publicity.

When even the Washington Post's Michael Gerson observes of Obama's speech to the UN General Assembly, "I can recall no other major American speech in which the narcissism of a leader has been quite so pronounced," then the volume of similar observations, which began well before the election, cannot be discounted.

So why did Obama go to Copenhagen? It was not really to see Chicago through. Like everything else in his life, Chicago was simply a tool to serve a purpose and selection of the city as 2016's venue was not actually important to that purpose.

The purpose of the trip was simply to splash Obama's photo on the front pages of the world's newspapers, to provide video of him basking in the personal adulation of the European crowd, an adulation that remains very real there even while Obama's popularity slides at home.

This is a man who simply craves attention, who thrives on it, who consumes it as nourishment. That's the first Mae West-ism at work, to get looked over, not overlooked. Writes Jay Cost,
... What should have been a story about Chicago - or better yet, Rio (good for you, Rio!) - is now a story about...Obama. Of course. Because just about everything in the public sphere must, must become a story about Obama. Because Obama injects himself and his campaign appartus/mindset/worldview into everything. And so, in this case, what would otherwise have been a "mere" rejection of Chicago and Mayor Daley has now become a rejection of the entire country. Why? Because of his decision to perpetuate the permanent campaign while holding the power of the executive.
That the publicity Obama is garnering from Copenhagen is already unfavorable matters little to him. The reason is Mae Westism number two: "there's no such thing as bad publicity." Tim Reid observes,
Mr Obama was greeted — as usual — like a rock star by the IOC delegates in Copenhagen — then humiliated by them. Perception is reality. A narrow defeat for Chicago would have been acceptable — but the sheer scale of the defeat was a bombshell, and is a major blow for Mr Obama at a time when questions are being asked about his style of governance.
It may seem from across the Big Pond that we colonials are raising questions about Obama's style of governance, but we're not. We figured that out long ago. And the Denmark trip is a shining example.

First, it was decidedly an unserious attempt by the president to promote Chicago. Ron Flatter wrote on RCP that Obama basically parachuted into Denmark, gave a speech and left, unlike Tony Blair, who campaigned for London's selection for the '12 games by schmoozing with the delegates for three days nonstop.
Instead of dedicating three days and nights working the IOC members, as we hear Tony Blair did for London in its successful bid for 2012, President Obama figured all he had to do was show up for a few minutes here at Bella Center after an all-night flight on Air Force One.
But Blair really did want London to get the games. Before Air Force One had arrived back in the US, Obama had already moved on.

Second, the trip illustrates perfectly why the president is a premier example of the Peter Principle.
"The Peter Principle is the principle that "In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence." It was formulated by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in their 1969 book The Peter Principle, a humorous treatise which also introduced the "salutary science of Hierarchiology", "inadvertently founded" by Peter. ...

The Peter Principle is a special case of a ubiquitous observation: anything that works will be used in progressively more challenging applications until it fails.
By the historical standards of the office, Barack Obama is certainly at a level far above his level of incompetency. A reader emailed Glenn Reynolds,
Just can’t get my head around this. So many foolish things about it, and here’s one more: Obama did this on a Friday, ensuring that the Sunday news talk shows discuss nothing else. The only world in which this makes a lick of sense is if he’s trying to distract from the horrible unemployment, the deteriorating Afghanistan situation, a Nuclear Iran, the Public Option failure…
To which Glenn observed, "Well, when your great PR coup is to change which of your failures is the subject of conversation, it’s not a great sign."

Even the New York Times (!) is on it:
Losing out on the Olympics, of course, is not the sort of war-and-peace issue that defines a presidency, and the embarrassment will presumably fade in a news cycle or two. But it provides fodder for critics who are already using it as a metaphor for a president who, in their view, focuses on the wrong priorities and overestimates his capacity to persuade the world to follow his lead.
But that is what Peter Principle people do! At one's level of incompetence, the manager or leader occupies his time with tasks below the level necessary for the office and hopes that staffs can pull success's rabbit out of the hat. (This helps explains why Obama has so many czars.) Couple that with Obama's inherent inability to measure success by any standard other than getting personal attention from as broad a swath as possible, and you see that the Oval office is occupied by a weak, ineffectual leader unable to perform at the level required. (But by no means has he achieved the level of almost-malfeasant incompetency of either Franklin Pierce or James Buchanan, the one-two punch from 1853-1861 that made the Civil War unstoppable.)

After John F. Kennedy was elected, President Dwight D. Eisenhower spent many hours with him. One of the key lessons was this: "All the decisions you will make," said Eisenhower, "will be hard decisions." Dwight went on to explain that the easy things will be tended to by cabinet secretaries and others of the administration with executive authority. But the tough ones will always be kicked to higher levels to be decided. At every level, the decisions become more and more difficult until, at last, the presidential inbox is filled with nothing but the most difficult items.

Fortunately for Kennedy and the country, he already had some experience facing very difficult decisions and for the most part was prepared for the inbox. Yet he was not so proud that he never asked his predecessor for advice. The photo at left won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize. It shows JFK and DDE walking at Camp David during the Cuban Missile Crisis after the Bay of Pigs fiasco (see endnote). Kennedy had asked Eisenhower to come there to give advice. It's worth noting that Eisenhower was a Republican but it didn't matter to Kennedy.

It is impossible to imagine President Obama inviting any former president to Camp David to help him steer a better course. Don't waste a second imagining either Bush could ever be invited. As Bill Clinton has said, he hardly ever gets even a phone call from Obama. Carter? You can imagine it, but ain't. gonna. happen.

As others have exhaustively pointed out, there is nothing at all in Obama's resume that shows he ever made  highly difficult decisions that depended, at the end, on his own personal reservoir of wisdom and experience. So he does not tackle the inbox because its contents are above his competence. (One is reminded of Obama telling Rick Warren that when an unborn child gets human rights is "above my pay grade.") He tends instead to lesser matters that match his lower level of competence and gratifyingly feed the ego. And so he flies to Copenhagen to deliver a speech of no significance on a matter of no consequence. Why? Because he can do that - simply standing in front of a crowd reading eloquently from a teleprompter he can handle quite well.

And it gets him front and center in the international media. It's a twofer.

We have a long three years ahead. As The New Republic's James Kirchick wrote in the NY Post, "We need a leader, not a prom king."

Update: Rick Moran:
The president’s failure in Copenhagen must be viewed in light of what else he might have been doing to address the growing unease with his presidency — his lack of apparent leadership where campaigning has become a substitute for making decisions, for instance. If the essence of leadership is the ability to decide the tough questions, the president is failing in that regard. His own party is wondering how strongly he supports the public option in health insurance reform. His commanding general in Afghanistan is wondering why he can’t get a straight answer on his request for thousands of more troops to stave off disaster.

And the American people are wondering when the president is going to address the growing unemployment figures and lack of economic activity that have everyone worried.
And further evidence of the president's limelight love is offered by Charles Krauthammer.
On September 24, Obama ostentatiously presided over the Security Council. With 14 heads of state (or government) at the table, with an American president in the chair for the first time ever, with every news camera in the world trained on the meeting, it would garner unprecedented worldwide attention.
But Obama did not mention Iran's just-confessed, secret nuclear-enrichment plant near Qom at the NSC meeting. Why? Charles cites the New York Times, which said that White House officials told them they "did not want to “dilute” his disarmament resolution “by diverting to Iran."
Diversion? It’s the most serious security issue in the world. A diversion from what? From a worthless U.N. disarmament resolution?

Yes. And from Obama’s star turn as planetary visionary: "The administration told the French," reports the Wall Street Journal, "that it didn’t want to 'spoil the image of success' for Mr. Obama’s debut at the U.N."
Dana Milbank of The Washington Post wonders,
Why isn't the president more decisive and forceful? On many of the most pressing issues -- the public option in health reform, troop levels in Afghanistan, sanctions against Iran -- the administration has hewed to hemming and hawing.

The area in which Obama has been most forceful recently has been, of all things, his effort to win the Olympics for his home city of Chicago, which caused him to fly off Thursday evening on a quick lobbying trip to Copenhagen. The first lady announced that the Olympics campaign was a "take no prisoners" mission.

On Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House on Thursday, environmental activists were demanding to know why Obama wouldn't, as they put it, "show the same foresight and commitment to our climate that he's showing to Chicago with this emergency trip to Copenhagen for the 2016 Olympics."
Why not? Because it's too hard.

Endnote: reader Gregory Koster emails,
The photograph of Eisenhower and Kennedy you refer to was NOT taken during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was taken shortly after the Bay of Pigs invasion, when Kennedy was in a funk, and badly needed reassurance. How else could it have won the 1962 Pulitzer, which was awarded in May, when the missile crisis was in October 1962? He was hesitant about calling Eisenhower, and spent more time asking that Eisenhower back him up. Eisenhower agreed, but was quite harsh in private about Kennedy, calling the Bay of Pigs a "profile of timidity and indecision." The lecture Eisenhower gave Kennedy took place in late 1960 during the transition. Kennedy didn't pay much attention to it, with the result evident at the Bay of Pigs disaster. Really, Kennedy is a much better example of a Peter Principle president than you realize. This photograph is an example of that. Kennedy didn't take Eisenhower's advice during the transition, nor during this visit. The principle result was Kennedy telling Eisenhower that he, Kennedy, had been sure the US could have kept its role concealed in the Bay of Pigs, which astonished Eisenhower, and reinforced the disdain he had for Kennedy, calling him "little boy blue."
I stand corrected.

Here's more pushback against my mildly favorable words about JFK.

Related: George Will's piece, "The Obamas' Narcissism on Display."
WASHINGTON -- In the Niagara of words spoken and written about the Obamas' trip to Copenhagen, too few have been devoted to the words they spoke there. Their separate speeches to the International Olympic Committee were so dreadful, and in such a characteristic way, that they might be symptomatic of something that has serious implications for American governance.

Both Obamas gave heartfelt speeches about ... themselves. Although the working of the committee's mind is murky, it could reasonably have rejected Chicago's bid for the 2016 games on aesthetic grounds -- unless narcissism has suddenly become an Olympic sport.

In the 41 sentences of her remarks, Michelle Obama used some form of the personal pronouns "I" or "me" 44 times. Her husband was, comparatively, a shrinking violet, using those pronouns only 26 times in 48 sentences. Still, 70 times in 89 sentences was sufficient to convey the message that somehow their fascinating selves were what made, or should have made, Chicago's case compelling. ...

Perhaps the premise of the otherwise inexplicable trip to Denmark was that there is no difficulty, foreign or domestic, that cannot be melted by the sunshine of the Obama persona. But in the contest between the world and any president's charm, bet on the world.
Even Richard Cohen piles on, too: "Obama Doesn't Seem Ready to Lead."
But as it [Copenhagen] turned out (an airy dismissal would not be an unfair description), it poses some questions about his presidency that are way more important than the proper venue for synchronized swimming. The first, and to my mind most important, is whether Obama knows who he is. ...

This is the president we now have: He inspires lots of affection but not a lot of awe. It is the latter, though, that matters most in international affairs, where the greatest and most gut-wrenching tests await Obama.
And Robert Guttman, the director of the Center on Politics and Foreign Relations, Johns Hopkins University, "Does Obama Actually Have A Foreign Policy?"
We need to know that the foreign policy of the United States is based on more than the presidents' celebrity status. While I approved of Chicago getting the 2012 Olympics the president's star power certainly did not sway the IOC in Copenhagen.