The World’s Greatest Orator appeared before the press yesterday, and here are some highlights of his remarks: “This is hard stuff. . . . Maybe I should just pack up and go home. Golly. I think it’s a little–as Mark Twain said, rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated at this point. . . . Right now things are pretty dysfunctional up on Capitol Hill. . . . You seem to suggest that somehow these folks over there [in Congress] have no responsibilities and that my job is to somehow get them to behave. That’s their job. . . . I cannot force Republicans to embrace those common-sense solutions. . . . We’re going to try to do everything we can to create a permission structure for them to be able to do what’s going to be best for the country.”
Gray skies are gonna clear up, put on a happy face!
If only they could bottle this stuff and sell it, they’d have a sleeping pill that lasts eight years. President Obama’s performance reminded National Journal’s Ron Fournier of a long-ago news conference in which President Clinton projected “a sense of helplessness–or even haplessness–against forces seemingly out of a president’s control.” That was on April 18, 1995, shortly after the Republicans took Congress and before Clinton figured out how to get the better of them.
“It was, by most accounts, the lowest point of the Clinton presidency,” Fournier writes. “The next day, domestic terrorists bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and Clinton’s strong response put him back on track for reelection in 1996.” We hope no one accuses us of being an Obama-hating wingnut, but we really hope something like that doesn’t happen again.
Fournier, it should be noted, has a tendency to run hot and cold. (We blame global warming.) Just a day earlier he was exulting over the president’s “amazing speech” at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner Saturday. Actually he referred to the final section of the speech, which was in a serious vein. According to Fournier, it “may stand as one of the best rhetorical moments of Obama’s presidency”–a low enough standard to make the claim arguable, but even so, the passages Fournier quoted seem to us far less impressive than Fournier thinks.
Perhaps then Fournier is overreacting to Obama’s press-conference performance. With characteristic contrarianness, blogress Ann Althouse speculates that Obama’s performance in “the Theater of the Ineffectual President” was “a scene in the script for winning the midterms. I can’t accomplish anything without Congress. Congress is the problem. He needs his Congress. Will we not give this beautiful man. . . the Congress that will bring his presidency to a successful end.”
It’s a clever theory but not a realistic plan. There’s no doubt that die-hard Democrats will respond in the way Althouse imagines they are expected to. Every time we write a column making note of Obama’s deficiencies of political skill, our small gaggle of fanboy adversaries on Twitter honk away at the “obstructionist Republicans” they believe are to blame for all that is wrong. Of course one man’s obstructionist is another’s valiant defender of the republic, but to insist on the former designation begs the question anyway. The Republicans in 1995 were no less “obstructionist” than today’s, but Clinton was able to master the problem.
At any rate, it’s a safe bet there aren’t enough die-hard Democrats in the right places to cost Republicans the House next year on the basis of an appeal like this. If there were, Nancy Pelosi would be speaker already. Even keeping the Senate in Democratic hands isn’t a sure thing, given that the Senate class up next year is heavily Democratic but from heavily Republican states.
In a rather droll follow-up piece today, Fournier employs a sports analogy. He quotes a sportswriter’s aphorism–”The great ones play above the breaks”–and applies it to the president: “Can President Obama play above the breaks? Will he be remembered for his great leadership or bad breaks?” But the analogy breaks down when Fournier gets to Obama’s grousing about his adversaries in Congress:
Obama needs a coach to look him in the eyes and say, “Mr. President, I’m not excusing the other team. They suck. But you need to beat them, sir. That’s your job, because if you can’t stop them, we lose. And there’s no excuse to losing to such a lousy-bleeping team.”
In sports, of course, coaches and players are happy when opposing teams “suck,” for that makes them easy to beat. But Fournier is conflating two different elements of politics. Elections, like a baseball game, are zero-sum: One side wins, the other loses. But governing or legislating is more complicated. It requires both compromise and persuasion–the ability to yield to your adversaries and to make them feel it is in their interest to yield to you. It also requires a practical sense of both how your ideas will go over politically, how to make them go over favorably, and how they will actually work in practice.
Obama is sorely lacking in all these skills–which even his detractors must acknowledge makes his re-election an impressive feat.
The Althouse theory raises another question: If Obama succeeded in electing a Democratic Congress next year, what would he do with it? The president did not do much by way of outlining an agenda for 2015. He didn’t mention his failed gun-control initiatives (though reporter Jonathan Karl did), which were blocked by the Democratic Senate. He did mention immigration reform, but he said he’s “confident” the current Congress will pass that.
And the substance of his comments about the problems currently facing the country was in line with the hapless tone of the passages we quoted atop this column. John Podhoretz likens him to Chip Diller, “the college boy who keeps screaming, ‘Remain calm! All is well!,’ as the town of Faber collapses around him at the end of ‘National Lampoon’s Animal House.’ ”
He made as unconvincing a case against the sequester spending limits as could be imagined:
Just one interesting statistic when it comes to airports. There was a recent survey of the top airports . . . in the world, and there was not a single U.S. airport that came in the top 25. Not one. Not one U.S. airport was considered by the experts and consumers who use these airports to be in the top 25 in the world. I think Cincinnati Airport came in around 30th.
What does that say about our long-term competitiveness and future? And so when folks say, well, there was some money in the FAA to deal with these furloughs [of air traffic controllers]–well, yeah, the money is this pool of funds that are supposed to try to upgrade our airports so we don’t rank in the bottom of industrialized countries when it comes to our infrastructure.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the president is correct about the poor state of America’s airports. Until this week, he’s telling us, the Federal Aviation Administration had a pot of money “to try to upgrade them.” That money appears to have been wasted. Why not use it on something useful like air traffic control?
He dithered on Syria, saying that the use of chemical weapons by Bashar Assad’s regime “is a game-changer”–by which he means “that we would have to rethink the range of options that are available to us.” That’ll keep Assad up nights.
He made excuses for the FBI’s losing track of the Boston bombing brothers:
The Russian intelligence services had alerted U.S. intelligence about the older brother, as well as the mother, indicating that they might be sympathizers to extremists. The FBI investigated that older brother. It’s not as if the FBI did nothing. They not only investigated the older brother, they interviewed the older brother. They concluded that there were no signs that he was engaging in extremist activity. So that much we know.
Heckuva job! But what was to our mind most stunning was the president’s lengthy call for shutting the terrorist detention facility at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, a promise he failed to keep in his first term.
Reporter Bill Plante asked the question, in a way that suggested he sympathized with the detainees: “Mr. President, as you’re probably aware, there’s a growing hunger strike [in] Guantanamo Bay among prisoners there. Is it any surprise really that they would prefer death rather than have no end in sight to their confinement?”
A strong president would have disputed the question’s premise. Obama accepted it:
The notion that we’re going to continue to keep over a hundred individuals in a no-man’s land in perpetuity, even at a time when we’ve wound down the war in Iraq, we’re winding down the war in Afghanistan, we’re having success defeating al Qaeda core, we’ve kept the pressure up on all these transnational terrorist networks, when we’ve transferred detention authority in Afghanistan — the idea that we would still maintain forever a group of individuals who have not been tried, that is contrary to who we are, it is contrary to our interests, and it needs to stop.
Now, it’s a hard case to make because I think for a lot of Americans the notion is out of sight, out of mind. And it’s easy to demagogue the issue. That’s what happened the first time this came up. I’m going to go back at it because I think it’s important.
The terrorists at Guantanamo have long used hunger strikes, riots and even suicide as tactics of “asymmetrical warfare,” as Adm. Harry Harris, then the commander of the detention facility, toldthis columnist in 2006. One expects the president to project resolve against the nation’s enemies, especially in the wake of a successful attack on U.S. soil just the week before last. Instead Obama’s message to the terrorists at Guantanamo is that he would very much like to give in to their demands.
But it’s a doubly weak message, because Obama lacks the capacity to carry out that wish for appeasement. He complained yesterday that his plan to shut Guantanamo was thwarted because “Congress determined that they would not let us close it.” He didn’t mention that was at a time when Democrats had supermajorities in both houses of Congress.
Terrorists are antagonistic toward the U.S. and don’t care about Democrats vs. Republicans or the White House vs. Congress. They’ll likely interpret the president’s promise to close Guantanamo as a sign of weakness and his failure to do so as a betrayal.
Americans, however, should understand it as an indication that Obama’s commitment to leftist ideology is much stronger than his political abilities.
One fascinating oddity of the contemporary multicultural left is that it is devoted to the assumption that no important differences between people, and especially groups of people, are genetically determined–with one exception. Such “blank slatism” is most notable in debates over intelligence and differences between the sexes, which are claimed to be entirely the product of nurture rather than nature (although moderate lefties will sometimes concede a genetic basis for body size dimorphism).
The exception is homosexuality, which we are supposed to believe is all in the genes. (Your sex is supposedly more malleable than the sex to which you are attracted!) The position that being gay is in the DNA is expedient, since it makes it harder to object to homosexuality on moral grounds.
But we notice a bit of a crack in this dogma, and from a surprising source–the nasty partisans at ThinkProgress.org. TP’s Zack Ford highlights a comment from Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, in response to the “coming out” of basketball player Jason Collins:
Collins has an identical twin, Jaron, who was “astounded” to discover that his brother had entered into the homosexual lifestyle. He, despite sharing Jason’s identical DNA, is as straight as a laser beam. Identical twins share straits [sic!] that are genetically determined: height, skin color, eye color, hair color and so forth. If homosexuality is a genetically caused sexual preference, Jaron Collins should be as gay as his brother. He’s not.
Here’s Ford’s rebuttal:
Just because homosexuality is a bit more complex than a particular gene prescription doesn’t mean Fischer’s point has any validity.
The latest research suggests that variations in sexual orientation can be influenced–not by the genes themselves, but by how certain markers (“epi-marks”) on the genes interact with hormones inside the womb. These epigenetic markers act as switches that can be activated during fetal development, affecting how DNA expresses itself. The end result is the same: an individual’s orientation is determined before birth and cannot be changed. This actually jibes with some recent twin studies, which suggest that even identical twins who share a hormonal environment in the womb can still experience different levels of blood during development. Thus, even twins with identical DNA can have differences in how that DNA is expressed.
Ford had the better of the argument, but he got it by making an important concession: that environmental factors as well as genes play a role in determining sexual orientation. Some gene or combination of genes might have been necessary for Jason Collins to be homosexual, but it was notsufficient.
Another way of putting this is that Collins evidently had the DNA to be heterosexual but his environment, unlike his brother’s, was insufficient to yield that result.
Which raises an interesting question. Suppose researchers isolated both a gene that predisposed the Collins brothers to homosexuality and a prenatal hormonal condition that caused that predisposition to manifest itself in Jason’s case but not his brother. Suppose further that parents or unborn children could be tested for that gene, and mothers carrying sons who have it could be administered a hormone treatment that would reduce or eliminate the possibility of a homosexual child.
Would gay-rights groups push for outlawing such a therapy? If so, would their pro-abortion allies join the push, or would they feel compelled to stand for “reproductive rights”? If such a therapy were available, would parents forgo it given the increasing public acceptance of homosexuality? Would its popularity follow political patterns, so that conservative Southerners would opt for straight kids while liberal Northeasterners allowed nature to take its course? Or would lots of the latter group take advantage of their right to privacy and make sure their kids didn’t turn out gay, not that there’s anything wrong with that?