Like most months of any other year, little changed in the nature of the cosmos on January of 2013. The planets continued to revolve about the sun. Aggregate prices were still a function of the economic laws of supply and demand. The geopolitical world still operated by the Hobbesian realities of balance of power and spheres of influence. And unicorns still did not exist. As it happens none of these features of the cosmos changed, even though America had just elected a president to a second term whose policies seemed to operate as though they had.
After almost six years, the effects of the administration’s decision tree has cascaded through the universe of logical causality and culminated into the storm of global crises which we are now watching unfold. And while it’s tempting to say that there simply was no way of anticipating events, anyone who revisits certain presidential debates and speeches in 2012 will be surprised to find that either Mitt Romney was endowed with great prophetic powers, or more plausibly that, as Dan Balz’s book Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections In America shows us, a state of the art campaign apparatus combined with a healthy dose of political cynicism, and an unintentionally cooperative rival, can salvage even the most misguided of candidacies. But an examination of that campaign victory in light of the subsequent failures of the Obama administration points to a larger problem which is that our political culture and its predisposition to privilege candidates with a mastery over the politics of perception has cultivated a leadership class that is particularly ill-disposed to governing in a world of harsh truths.
This is not to say that the Obama administration isn’t capable of adapting to inconvenient realities. In the aftermath of the president’s “shellacking” in the 2010 midterms Obama’s campaign team, led by Jim Messina, realized that success in 2012 meant leaving the “Yes we can” optimism of the 2008 election behind and instead “develop and refine a message that somehow leapfrogged the debate about the current state of the economy” to a narrative that would “disqualify their opponent.” As their research in the battleground states revealed, however, this would not be easy.
I haven’t had a raise in five years. I’m paying more for health insurance and getting less. My 401(k) that was supposed to be the reward for doing everything the right way is gone. I am sick and tired of giving bailouts to the folks at the top and handouts to the folks at the bottom. I’m going to fire people until my life gets better.
These were the words from one man in Des Moines, Iowa, which captured the sentiment in the surveys performed by Obama’s team. What is perhaps most revealing about how Obama and his team responded to this feedback is how little it affected the president’s own views of his own leadership. Balz writes,
In all other ways, Obama resisted interpretations that suggested shortcomings on his part. Not the big health care initiative that had divided the country. Not the government spending that so many independents objected to. Not the distance that now existed between the country and a younger leader whom so many Americans had embraced with such passion just two years earlier.
This predisposition of the Obama administration to avoid harsh self-scrutiny seems to be not just limited to matters of political temperament. After almost six years it appears to be a central tenet of his administration’s pattern of decision making. In one of the more insightful post-mortems on the mismanaged Obamacare roll-out, Healthcare.gov and the Gulf Between Planning and Reality, Clay Shirky, a subject matter expert on the technology of the internet, observed that the administration demonstrated a classic feature of dysfunctional leadership: the natural tendency to confuse what is desirable with reality, that behind the failures of the roll-out of Healthcare.gov lay an organizational culture that was unwilling to submit its assumptions to the very necessary, and humbling, experience of product testing.
The management question, when trying anything new, is “When does reality trump planning?” For the officials overseeing Healthcare.gov, the preferred answer was “Never.” Every time there was a chance to create some sort of public experimentation, or even just some clarity about its methods and goals, the imperative was to avoid giving the opposition anything to criticize.
Recent accounts of the administration’s decision making process regarding ISIS and the Middle East appear to reinforce an image of epistemic closure in the presidential decision making process. Among recent criticisms includes those of the president’s previous Secretaries of Defense Bob Gates and Leon Pannetta, and divulges that the decision to withdraw troops from Iraq and avoid involvement in Syria was decided against military recommendations, and in the latter case against the recommendation of his entire national security staff. For all of the military expertise that counseled the president otherwise, it seemed the president refused in deference to a vision of an America and a geopolitics that has since been proven to have insufficient contact with realities on the ground. As has already been noted by his critics, many of Obama’s second term mistakes appear to share a common family resemblance: a refusal to submit cherished preconceptions to the facts of reality.
But if 2012 is any indication, what fails in governance appears to succeed in our political culture. When the Obama team had completed their research in anticipation of the 2012 election much of what they learned wasn’t surprising: frustration of the middle class, a sense of grievance toward the government’s apparent indifference to their plight, a willingness to vote the president out if the Republican alternative looked more promising. However, on this last point there was good news for the Obama team.
In October of 2011, the campaign had conducted focus groups in three battleground states – Ohio, Florida, and New Hampshire – and had shown participants a famous photo taken of Romney and his partners at Bain as they were forming the company. They were holding dollar bills and smiling broadly, and more bills were stuffed in their pockets and in their mouths and in their shirt collars. After seeing that Messina said, “People were like, ‘Game Over.’
While the Romney campaign lamely attempted to find their range against their rival, the Obama team capitalized on the opportunities Romney represented as a caricature in their political melodrama.
No one expected Campaign 2012 to be positive, or uplifting. But what was most striking at that point in the race was not just the negativity or the sheer volume of attack ads raining down on voters in the swing states. It was the sense that all restraints were gone, the guardrails had disappeared, and there was no incentive for anyone to hold back.
The caricatures of Romney as industrialist villain became so over the top Democratic leaders with ties to industry and finance began to make noise about the Obama campaign’s strategy. But the strategy worked. What informed much of the Obama team’s success was the understanding that political campaigns are more about emotional catharsis than policy and leadership. When the Washington Post came out with their exit poll of the election, under the section “Which one of these four candidate qualities mattered most in deciding how you voted for president?” Obama only beat Romney in one of the four categories, but by 63%. The category was “Cares for people like me.” Dan Balz quotes Kevin Madden from the Romney campaign, “We were teaching an economics class, they were writing love songs.”
But along the way, reality disrupted the psychodrama, however briefly. Looking back at the events of Benghazi we now know that it wasn’t a blip but a foreshadowing of what would transpire in the second term of the soon to be re-elected president. On the day after Ambassador Stevens and three other American’s were killed Mitt Romney would be roundly criticized for the cynical impulsiveness of making a public statement that included these, now rather apt, observations.
The attacks in Libya and Egypt underscore that the world remains a dangerous place and that American leadership is still sorely needed. In the face of this violence, America cannot shrink from the responsibility to lead. American leadership is necessary to ensure that events in the region don’t spin out of control. We cannot hesitate to use our influence in the region to support those who share our values and our interests.
As controversies go, the Benghazi affair has proven to be the box of chocolates that keeps on giving. Journalist Sharyl Attkisson leaves CBS because of what she characterizes as internal stonewalling against her investigation. Edward Klein in his recent expose Blood Feud: The Clintons vs the Obamas claims to have two witnesses that can confirm that, according to Bill Clinton, Hillary was given direct instructions by president Obama to mislead the public as to the cause of Benghazi. More recently a State Department official has come out to confirm that Hillary had directed her department to conceal incriminating documents.
But rather than litigate Benghazi, it is perhaps more instructive to draw the larger implications about our political situation from the fact that, in an election that was ultimately determined by emotivist theatre, global realities interfered with the festivities only to be unceremoniously escorted off the national stage so that the political melodrama could proceed.
In the end what won was a politics that by virtue of good theatre and a great ground game aggregated enough votes from voters sympathetic to the boutique political interests of the center-left. What won, in other words, was a strategy that capitalized on the dynamics of a culture under the influence of what I described in my previous post as the Politicized Soul. In the end of that article I write that our politics of passionate distraction “has slowly surrendered this world to forces more practically minded and less sympathetic to the freedoms we seem determined to take for granted.” As I post this, reports are that Putin has already made noise about expanding his European ambitions, Jihadi recruiting continues to go wonderfully in Europe, ISIS forces are now one mile out of Baghdad, and the president continues to ignore what we learned in the Surge and insist on a strategy which, in its reliance on air support and no prominent role for American troops, bears an unfortunate resemblance to his catastrophic approach in Libya.
In many ways 2012 was a crystallization of a politics fixated on empathy and evasive of the realities of the larger world. But what wins in such elections fails in practical policy, and therein lies the fundamental difference between attaining office and attaining power. If the qualities that ensure electoral victory are the same qualities that ensure blindness to practical realities then even the resources of the United States will prove an inadequate defense against the facts of the real world. And try as we might, electing candidates with a talent for geopolitical wishful thinking will not make it otherwise. The fact that we seem to think so tells us that, ultimately, this isn’t a problem about a particular politician, but our political class and our culture.