It was fashionable at the end of the 1970s, after a dreary parade of presidential failures punctuated by Jimmy Carter, to say the presidency had grown too unwieldy. The historian Barbara Tuchman spoke for all the academic and journalistic believers in the theory of the impossible presidency when she mused, “Maybe some form of plural executive is needed, such as they have in Switzerland.”
Ah, yes, the wonders of the plural executive. Why didn’t that occur to James Madison?
Pres. Barack Obama has belatedly joined the ranks of presidential fatalists. The job isn’t too complex necessarily; it’s too damn influential. According to the New York Times, Obama has been telling aides that it’d be easier to be president of China. No one hangs on Hu Jintao’s every word, or expects global leadership from a grasping, one-party state that has never been a beacon to the world.
In the history of presidential lamentations, this has to rank among the most pathetic. It brings to mind the affecting scene from The King’s Speech when Colin Firth, playing the stammering monarch-to-be, breaks down and weeps at the prospect of the crown being thrust upon him: “I’m not a king.” Except Barack Obama campaigned for two years straight to be president of the United States — and doesn’t stutter.
The proximate cause of Obama’s angst is the crisis in Libya. Obama announced that Moammar Qaddafi must go, and proceeded to do nothing that might give his words any bite. The administration is still agonizing over the no-fly zone, even as Qaddafi routs the rebels. The no-fly zone isn’t a panacea — realistically, it’d only be a way station to more robust military action. Perhaps the administration wants to rule it out. Fine. But decide already. If Obama wasn’t going to aid the rebels in any way — not even recognize their provisional government, not even arm them — he should have modulated his words accordingly.
Obama lacks executive flair. Talk to New Jersey governor Chris Christie and he will tell you at length how much he loves making decisions. It’s hard to imagine a Chris Christie enjoying life as a legislator. Obama came to the presidency after a political career spent marinating in senates, first in Illinois, then in Washington.
Osama bin Laden famously talked of the weak horse and the strong horse. Obama is the show horse. As a U.S. senator, he distinguished himself more by saying things than by passing legislation. In the White House, he has replicated his role as the non-legislating legislator on a grand scale. His successes have been as the leader of the Democrats in Congress, although even here, the word “leader” applies only loosely. He set the broad goals and gave the speeches; otherwise, he let Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid run riot.
The stakes of Obama’s self-imposed passivity aren’t as dire as those of Pres. James Buchanan, who pleaded powerlessness as the country fell apart around him on the cusp of the Civil War. William Seward commented acerbically: “[He] shows conclusively that it is the duty of the president to execute the laws — unless somebody opposes him; and that no state has a right to go out of the Union — unless it wants to.” Nor has President Obama reached the depths of a Jimmy Carter, who literally disappeared in the run-up to his infamous 1979 “malaise” speech.
At the dawn of America’s global power, a bumptious Theodore Roosevelt raced to make America’s influence felt around the world — and earned a Nobel Peace Prize as a result. President Obama gives off a sense of world-weariness and exhaustion with America’s leadership — and has earned a Nobel Peace Prize as a result. He reflects the deep vein of declinism running through the country’s elite, the same class of people who pronounced the presidency uninhabitable just as Ronald Reagan arrived to prove them wrong.
Today, as in the late 1970s, the job isn’t too big, nor is the country too powerful: The man is too small.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2011 by King Features Syndicate.