Politics & Policy

Crises Are Not Opportunities

A president should try to solve problems, not use them for political gain.

Rahm Emanuel’s one-liner at the dawn of the Obama administration, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” was more prescient than we knew at the time. Perhaps Emanuel was paraphrasing a proverb used in a John F. Kennedy speech in 1959: “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.” (That is not really the case, according to Chinese linguists.) We’re used to thinking of crises as problems to be solved, whereas in the Emanuel (and presumably Obama) mindset, they are opportunities to be exploited. Something terrible has happened; this is the moment to envision this terrible event as a chance to get what I want. Emanuel departed the Obama administration in 2010 to become mayor of Chicago, but we continue to see this attitude in the president’s approach to governing, particularly since Obama’s second term began.

Virginia Tech, Aurora, Tucson, Newtown: America has, if not a crisis, a deeply disturbing problem of young men with severe emotional and mental issues lashing out by killing as many people as possible. After Newtown, there was a brief period of genuine public discussion about how to address the problems of these individuals, but the conversation quickly shifted and became dominated by discussion of gun control — even though angry young men can be plenty dangerous even without a gun, as seen when a 20-year-old college student went on a stabbing rampage at the Lone Star Community College in Cypress, Texas; 14 people were injured.

#ad#Socially isolated young men and the mentally troubled have always existed, but something has inspired this copycat mentality among the most disturbed: When they begin to find their lives too tough, their answer is to locate the most vulnerable group of people they can find — in a theater, the gun-free zone of a college campus or kindergarten class — and try to wipe out as many of them as possible.

But the discussion about the mental health of the gunmen doesn’t lend itself to their demonization, and the topic is a distraction if your mission is to marginalize the NRA. Week by week, month by month, Obama and his allies increasingly focused on a push for background checks at gun shows.

The shooters at Virginia Tech, Aurora, Tucson, and Newtown didn’t get their firearms at gun shows. Gun shows are entirely irrelevant to the problem of mass shooters, and almost entirely irrelevant to the problem of crimes committed with a gun — new statistics from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reveal that fewer than 1 percent of state-prison inmates who possessed a gun when they committed their offenses obtained the firearms at a gun show.

Instead of actually doing something about any potential mass shooters who are out there, the nation’s capital is tied up in a dispute about a proposal that would have changed absolutely nothing if it had been in effect when the mass shootings in question took place. Judging from how frequently the president’s former campaign apparatus, Organizing for Action, sends out fundraising e-mails about the topic, the political advantage of the irrelevant fight must be too good for Obama to pass up.

Then there’s the issue of immigration. The Great Recession reduced the rate of illegal immigration, but there is general agreement that about 11 million illegal immigrants are living in the United States. Some of these 11 million are good people, who would make good Americans, such as Antonio Diaz Chacon, who in 2011 intervened when, seeing a six-year-old girl being abducted, he chased down the kidnapper and rescued her.

But some of these 11 million mean us harm, or have no sense of loyalty to the country they reside in. One recent example is Azamat Tazhayakov, 19, who illegally reentered the U.S. on an invalid student visa (he was no longer attending the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth) and is charged with hiding evidence from police investigators in the aftermath of the Boston bombings.

#page#Any serious solution to illegal immigration requires sorting through the 11 million to identify and deport those who show no sign of becoming “good citizens.” If the public believed that the government was actually going to do this in a competent manner, and that the border was secure, you would see a wide, bipartisan consensus for immigration reform. Americans aren’t that troubled by the thought of their local busboy becoming an American citizen. They’re worried about the gang members, drug dealers and smugglers, human traffickers, and other hardened criminals.

The Democratic party’s primary objective in this debate has been to get as many of these 11 million declared citizens as quickly as possible. Never mind that all of them have already broken the law by entering the country illegally. Never mind the potential impact on unskilled workers already here. Never mind how the vast majority of these folks have not paid any income taxes since their arrival, a failure for which most American citizens would be put in prison. To listen to the Democratic party’s rhetoric, you would think that the primary problem with our current system is that you’re not allowed to vote in federal elections the moment you cross the border.

The transparent goal here is to get 11 million new Democratic voters in the system as soon as possible, turning a bunch of red states purple and purple states blue. All of the other concerns — who among these people mean us harm? is it in our economic interest? can they be culturally assimilated? — are dismissed as xenophobia.

#ad#Finally, there is the sequester. In his State of the Union address, Obama declared, “It is not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.”

A president who truly believed in the government’s ability to work efficiently and dispel the public’s perception of the “bloated bureaucrat” would welcome the opportunity to cut seven to ten percentage points from the federal budget with no significant change in the quality of government services. That president would welcome, instead of threatening to veto, legislation that gave him greater flexibility to administer sequestration cuts.

Instead, we have gotten the Washington Monument strategy on a grand, government-wide scale — illegal immigrants let out of detention centers, White House tours canceled, long delays at airports because of cuts (now averted) to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Meanwhile, the federal government continues to spend $20 million on helping the Palestinian Authority be more effective, $11,000 per classroom for audiovisual systems for the Foreign Service Institute, $3.8 million to enact reforms to Armenia’s pension system, $18.8 million for economic development in the Philippines, and nearly $900,000 on keeping empty bank accounts open, while $2 billion in unspent stimulus funds remain in federal accounts. What we see before us today is the exact opposite of a “smarter government that sets priorities.”

Many of us walk around with this old-fashioned notion that government ought to try to make life better for its citizens; for this administration, the aim of the sequester appears to be to administer the cuts as painfully as possible in order to persuade the public that the sequester was a bad idea.

Obama’s approval rating is in the high 40s again. It occasionally dips underwater (when his disapproval rating higher rises above it) and then resurfaces. If public approval still matters to him — at this point, it may take a backseat to his mission of “fundamentally transforming the United States of America” — he may want to try solving the next crisis to arise, instead of trying to use it for political gain.

The president and Rahm Emanuel may never want a serious crisis to go to waste, but the American people really never want a serious crisis to just fester.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.


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