How Executive Hubris Trumps Bipartisan Reform Efforts

During their respective time in office, both Ronald Regan and Bill Clinton asserted their believe that legislation stood a greater chance of succeeding if no one cared who took the credit. Ronald Reagan believed this so strongly, that he had the words inscribed on a plaque that he kept on the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. (Replicas are available for purchase at the Reagan Library). Bill Clinton, speaking in reference to reducing the national dept, stating the approach explicitly in his first State of the Union address. Much has changed in the ensuing years.  Now, in 2013, it appears that the Obama Administration has inverted this sentiment and would rather see legislation fail if it can’t be covered in all of the glory and receive all of the credit. If this is not the explicit approach being adopted by the Obama Administration, then the Congressional Liaison staff is going out of their way to make it appear so.

Over the past four years relations between the White House and Congress have been testy at best, even when Democrats controlled both houses with a super majority in the Senate. The situation deteriorated sharply following the 2010 mid-term elections and a federal budget has not been passed since. Any hopes that a new era would emerge following the 2012 election cycle have vanished, as both Republicans and Democrats have clung to their respective mandates as reason to continue to obstruct and delay for at least the next two years. Whilst flaws exist on both sides, the White House has, in rapid succession, demonstrated a stunning disregard for political process and for the nuance required to pass legislation in Congress. In a political system explicitly designed to frustrate, the Obama Administration appears determined to make matters worse rather than better. Two incidents highlight what appears to be administration obstructionism of the worst possible kind that threatens the economic, political and cultural integrity of the nation.

The first issue arose in the last days of 2012, as the United States was hurtling towards what became universally known as the Fiscal Cliff. Economists, political consultants and media pundits speculated wildly as to the potential repercussions of such an event, whilst in D.C., high-level negotiations continued in an apparent effort to prevent such an incident. This, of course, had been an artificial deadline, imposed to ensure that politicians of both sides of the aisle worked together to agree upon a budget. This apparently was too much to ask for. However, with the deadline looming politicians gathered into the early hours to thrash out a deal that would be mutually agreeable to Democrats and Republicans alike. Yet whilst these negotiations were moving forward, President Obama chose to stage a campaign style rally on the White House campus surrounded by a group of children who he claimed would suffer under the proposals put forth by the Republican Party.

Now, to be clear, the Republican Party and its leadership hardly covered themselves in glory in this process and as a result questions were asked as to the continued viability of John Boehner’s Speakership. However, putting Republican ineptitude to one side, the decision of the president to stage such a politically inept event at the very moment that negotiators were meeting to flesh out an agreement spoke volumes as to the tin ear that that the administration has and to its appalling capacity to deal with Congress. Just as negotiations were nearing completion the president elected to play politics rather than work to ensure an agreeable solution. It should not surprise anyone that the final deal appears to have been struck by Vice President Biden, and the Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, two old boys from the Senate who have known each other for decades and who are used to working together to solve problems; In other words, two politicians who understand how and why Congress works and importantly, how not to get things done. Even then, the best that they could do was to kick the problem 3 months down the road, so that we are faced with the dilemma once more. In the coming days the spectre of Sequestration will loom large once more as the U.S. hovers above a financial abyss. Once more the world will look on aghast and ponder the fate of the world’s most important economic powerhouse and the childish antics of its leading politicians.

The second incident involved a similar situation but a different set of circumstances. For years, politicians in Washington have been debating immigration reform. However, only rarely do serious proposals see the light of day and make it out of various committees. In Washington, failed legislation can become toxic and persuade any career minded politician to avoid the issue for years, possibly even decades (as occurred with health care). So when a bipartisan group of serious minded, intelligent Senators (known as the Group of 8) got together in an effort to present a balanced and logical series of initiatives on the issue, you would have imagined that this was something the White House would have been supportive of, but you would be wrong.

Instead of welcoming such moves and working either quietly or openly to promote a bipartisan initiative to solve this long-standing issue, the White House appears determined to kill it at birth. The first inept move was for President Obama to insist on delivering a speech in Las Vegas within hours of the Group of 8 press conference on the issue, which had been the very image of bipartisanship. This immediately drew attention and political momentum away from the work that had been conducted on the issue and muddied the waters in relation to the situation. As if this wasn’t bad enough, USA Today has now been provided with draft legislation from the White House that would appear to directly challenge the bill being proposed by the Group of 8.

If passage of immigration reform was the political priority of the administration it had a perfect opportunity to pursue a bipartisan bill that would have put Obama and his former 2008 adversary John McCain and his potential successor in 2016, Marco Rubio, on the same side of the issue. Instead, the White House has sought to politicise the issue and risks torpedoing the issue. One must ask at what point ineptitude becomes a deliberate attempt to obfuscate and be bloody-minded. Whichever approach is being adopted, the end result is the same; bipartisan legislation is being undermined, politics is becoming sullied and confidence in the United States is being shaken at precisely the moment that it needs to provide global leadership in time of economic crisis.

This continuing escapade is a clear and telling reminder of Obama’s lack of legislative experience and should be a warning the next time a candidate has the hubris to declare himself ready for the presidency after little more than 18 months in the U.S. Senate.  Leadership, it appears, was not on the ballot in 2012, let us hope it will be in 2016.

Overcooked Rice

So, after weeks of speculation it now appears certain that the next Secretary of State will…. Not be Susan Rice. In a surprise move the current US Ambassador to the United Nations has written to President Obama, asking that her name be removed from consideration for the position. Note that she has not been withdrawn from the nomination, as she had yet to be nominated for anything. For weeks she has been in a political twilight zone; a presumptive nominee, if you will. This is, therefore, a pre-emptive withdrawal in certain expectation of a disastrous Senate confirmation hearing that promised to pitch the White House against the forces of Lindsay Graham and John McCain, who is set to join the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee ahead of the nomination process. One wonders if this news was a tipping point for the White House and for Rice’s prospects.

This nomination process has been presented in some quarters as political posturing run amok, but it is vital to recall that the United States Senate has the constitutional authority and responsibility to approve presidential appointments of this nature and it is clear that Rice has serious questions to answer in key areas, not least of which is the debacle that occurred in Benghazi, for which she may well become the administration’s unwitting fall-girl.

Beyond this, however, profound doubts have been raised about Rice’s temperament. For someone on the apparent cusp of being appointed American’s chief diplomat to be thought of as ‘ un-diplomatic, aggressive and brusque’, as was recently mentioned on The Daily Beast, is far from complementary. Her decision to ‘give the finger’ to Richard Holbrooke has clearly not been forgotten, and even if the former ambassador is not around to remind anyone of this incident, in Washington, DC, memories linger of such incidents.

Rice’s letter to Obama this evening does not mean that she will not serve in a second term. She remains the US Ambassador to the UN and could remain in this position, or possibly be named National Security Adviser, a post that does not require Senate confirmation.

With Rice now no longer in the running for the State Department, the question remains as to who will fill Hillary Clinton’s pumps. The delay in naming a foreign policy team has been remarkable and it appears clear now that this was due to the refusal of key Republicans to countenance the thought of Susan Rice as Secretary of State. Second terms often get second-rate teams, and this could be the case again. Instead, it now appears likely that a white male could return to the role for the first time since Warren Christopher (remember him? No, I didn’t think so) stood down at the end of Clinton’s first term.

The smart money is on Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. The problem with this is that it would necessitate a Special election to replace him until the midterms of 2014 and whilst the state is heavily Democratic, Scott Brown’s upset victory following the death of Edward Kennedy demonstrates that the Democrats can take nothing for granted (unless they can find another Kennedy to run, perhaps?)

So, the shadow of Benghazi has now crept over Obama’s second term, before it has had time to begin. The scandal did not appear to influence the election result, but it has already claimed its first victim. It is worth noting that presidential scandals have traditionally occurred in the much sought after second term, and have been caused by an event in the later stages of the first term. If alarm bells are not yet ringing in the West Wing of the White House, then they should be. The second term is about to begin…It’s about to get a whole lot more interesting folks!

Obama Caught Dancing in the End Zone: The Commander in Chief on His Victory Lap

Presidential election adverts have the potential to set the tone for campaigns and to make their mark in history. Notable examples include Lyndon Johnson’s notorious Daisy advert from 1964 and the commercials from President Reagan’s re-election campaign in 1984, The Bear and Morning in America.

It is unlikely that this latest effort from the Obama team entitled ‘One Chance’, will end up in this category of historically important averts, but it certainly appears that the Obama team has missed an historic opportunity to call for unity in this message. Essentially a 90 second commentary by former President Bill Clinton discussing Barack Obama’s decision to launch the mission that took out Osama bin Laden a year ago, the campaign advert has received widespread criticism.

The film goes beyond mere advocacy of the president’s decision to raise doubts as to whether Mitt Romney would have made the same call and launched the raid that killed bin Laden. It does so by use of Wolf Blitzer reading a Romney quote from several years ago, in which he questions the wisdom of “moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars to catch one person.” The suggestion that the president is ‘dancing in the End Zone’ was exacerbated by Obama’s decision to address the nation from Afghanistan last night.

In previous presidential elections, candidates have repeatedly sought to portray themselves as being strongest in terms of national security. During the Cold War in particular any weakness in this area was quickly pounced upon and exploited as a sign of weakness and unsuitability for the highest office in the land. Flaws in this area proved fatal for Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, for George McGovern in 1972 and Michael Dukakis never overcame his disastrous tank ride in 1988. Even Senator John Kerry, a decorated war hero, was unable to adequately exploit his escapades in Vietnam despite the contrasting positions adopted during that conflict by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

Interestingly, the advert does not feature Obama making any comment upon the killing. Instead he is shown in silhouette, looking out of a window in the Green Room of the White House, in an image clearly designed to replicate George Tames’ classic portrait of President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office, alone with the awesome responsibility of power.

What is surprising, perhaps, is that Obama has taken so long to play the bin Laden card and one wonders how comfortable he is in doing so? However the president feels personally about this, he and his campaign have clearly recognised that they cannot afford to be out-muscled by their Republican challenger. History reveals that Republicans have traditionally been far more effective at presenting themselves as the natural defenders of U.S. national security in contrast to their Democratic rivals.

There is a long tradition in the United States of electing Republicans in time of national security threats and Democrats in time of economic crisis. This has been referred to as the ‘Daddy’ and ‘Mommy’ reaction to challenges; ‘Daddy’ will defend you, ‘mommy’ will sort out the finances. Clearly, this is far from flattering to Democratic Party sensibilities and the validity of this charge is questionable; it was, of course, Democratic administrations that took the United States into World War I, II, Korea and Vietnam. There is, therefore, something of a conservative myth of national security strength.

In 2008 Obama was a less muscular candidate and was attacked on this basis by Senator Hillary Clinton in her advert asking whom America wanted in the White House to take an emergency call at 3am. With a distinguished military record and family heritage, Senator John McCain was the national security candidate, but this was of little benefit in a time of financial crisis, which helped deliver the presidency to Barack Obama.

Four years later Obama needs to take advantage of his dual role as President and Commander-in-Chief to maximise his chance for re-election. To do so he is seeking to emphasize his successes, minimise his errors and exacerbate any perceived weakness in his opponent. In doing so he has the benefit of having been the president who authorised the mission that finally killed Osama bin Laden, over a decade after the assault on Washington and New York.

Some have suggested that his attempt to benefit from such an action is akin to Nixon claiming credit for the Moon landing in July 1969; an event that occurred under his watch, but which had been initiated almost a decade earlier by his fiercest political rival, President Kennedy. This, however, is disingenuous. All presidents have to take responsibility for events that occur on their watch, both good and bad. Just as President Carter was forced to run for re-election having launched the disastrous effort to recapture American hostages that resulted in the loss of life following helicopter crashes in the desert, so Obama gets to run as the president who got bin Laden. To deny him this achievement is petty.

Taking credit for operational successes during tenure in office is a time-honoured tradition. Claiming credit for engaging with the enemy has occurred in presidential addresses before and will happen in the future. President Obama is far from unusual in this regard.

However the campaign advert has missed an excellent opportunity to rally support and unify the nation. In seeking to highlight only the role played by the president in launching the operation to kill bin Laden, it has rightly been criticised for not mentioning the vital role played by the intelligence services, the military in general, SEAL Team 6 in particular and the work put in by the Bush Administration long before Obama came to office. A few words to share the accolades would have made a world of difference and actually benefited the White House by appearing to be magnanimous rather than triumphant. It has even led to criticism by the very Navy SEALS who led the operation.

This poor choice has been compounded by the un-necessary decision to raise questions as to whether Mitt Romney would have launched such an operation. Such a stance is churlish and un-becoming the office of the presidency. Strategically it makes no sense; this is a campaign message by the President of the United States and he should not need to engage his as yet un-anointed opponent in such a broadcast.

The Obama campaign’s actions have actually granted Mitt Romney the opportunity to appear gracious and generous in his response. Speaking alongside former Mayor Ruddy Giuliani in New York, the presumptive Republican candidate spoke yesterday of his admiration for ALL concerned with the raid that killed bin Laden, including President Obama, but also the SEAL Team 6, the CIA etc. Vitally he noted the strategic error that the Obama campaign had made: “I think politicizing it and trying to draw a distinction between himself and myself was an inappropriate use of the very important event that brought America together,” Romney said. It was, perhaps, the most presidential that Romney has sounded on the campaign so far.

With the campaign season in America about to move into high gear, we can expect to see far more of these commercials, advocating one candidate or another. The Romney campaign has proved to be the masters of attack ads during the Republican primary season. The Obama campaign would be wise to note that the best American political ads have not needed to highlight the apparent flaws in an opponent, but merely to advance the unifying qualities of their own candidate to inspire the very sense of hope and calm that is required in national leadership. The Obama campaign must devise a better, more bi-partisan way of doing this if it is to avoid falling prey to the inevitable attack ads that have so far proved to be so successful for Mitt Romney.

A version of this article first appeared on The Commentator.

I was asked to appear on Sky News to discuss the President’s activities this week, I hope you enjoy my comments: