Sunday, May 2, 2010

Perception and Reality

There was a point in the storyline of The West Wing when one of the president's daughters was kidnapped by terrorists.

The president selflessly chose to invoke the 25th Amendment, temporarily relieving himself of his duties and elevating the speaker of the House, who belonged to the opposition party, to the role of acting president until the situation was resolved — thus sparing the nation the spectacle of a distraught father making decisions that should be made with the best interests of the country in mind.

The acting president took some hardline positions during the crisis, during which some Americans were killed, and he had to call their families to express his condolences and his appreciation for their sacrifices.

The president's secretary found him sitting at his desk in the Oval Office, and he asked her, "When do I get to the fun part of being president?" She asked him to clarify, and he said he was referring to riding on Air Force One and getting preferred tee times at the best golf courses.

(Later in that same episode was an exchange that I thought was profound. It may have no relevance to what I'm writing about today, but it's worth repeating.

(Anyway, the actual president — who had recused himself — was reflecting on his own actions that had led to the kidnapping of his daughter in retaliation. He quoted Martin Luther King, who said that violence was a "descending spiral" that contributed to a "deeper darkness."

("I'm a part of that darkness now," he said. "When did that happen?"

("Dr. King wasn't wrong," his chief of staff said. "He just didn't have your job.")

My guess is that a lot of people — including many of the people who seek the office — look at the presidency, and all they see is the glamorous side. They see the trips on Air Force One, the band playing "Hail to the Chief" when the president walks into a room, the First Family rubbing elbows with the rich and famous, the president getting preferential treatment at Hilton Head, etc.

They don't see the agonizing decisions that must be made, often in solitude. They don't experience the pressures of the office, pressures the Constitution places on only one person at a time.

Some presidents handle those pressures better than others. They are the ones who are typically rewarded with a second term.

Those who don't handle the pressures too well are denied a second term. And those who don't handle them in an appropriately constitutional manner may leave themselves open to impeachment. It's a matter of interpretation.

Those times of being tested come at different points — and for different reasons — in each president's tenure. But the random, chaotic nature of the world and its people makes it all but certain that a president — especially, it seems, in these times with an unprecedented global population making its demands on the planet and its resources — will face at least one test (if not more) of his/her leadership ability.

Frankly, it ought to be a given that a president can expect some choppy waters at some point. Since George Washington first took the oath of office 221 years ago on Friday, I can think of no four–year presidential term that has been serene and tranquil.

If you could ask him about it, I imagine Barack Obama would say that he feels he has been tested — almost continuously — since January 20 of last year, and that isn't entirely an exaggeration. Nor is it an unreasonable stance to take. He assumed office in the midst of the worst recession this country has faced since the end of World War II, and his dedicated supporters probably would argue that he has, so far, fulfilled his constitutional obligations (while, most would further argue, achieving a legislative victory that eluded other Democratic presidents).

All of that may be true. But here are a few more things that happen to be true:
  • For openers, there is a massive oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico.

    Experts are speaking of it as a potential, even probable, catastrophe. CNN quoted an environmentalist who warned that the effects of this oil slick may be felt for decades.

    It is being compared to Hurricane Katrina, which is an understandably sensitive comparison for the folks on the Gulf. And Obama, nearly two weeks after the explosion that triggered the situation, is finally in Louisiana to see the disaster up close.

    No doubt someone within his administration has warned him that the last thing he and his fellow Democrats need in an election year is a widespread impression that Obama's handling of this crisis resembles George W. Bush's mishandling of the hurricane.

    But how can one stop an oil spill? his defenders may ask. Fair point. And how can one stop a hurricane? See, that isn't the relevant debate, although there are sure to be those who will argue it. Obama can't stop the oil spill until he knows what caused it. Bush couldn't change the conditions that spawned the hurricane. Stopping the threat is not what this is about.

    The point is that both presidents had many days to anticipate a worst–case scenario and take whatever steps were deemed necessary to prepare for it yet neither one did.

    Until it was, in essence, too late.

  • Meanwhile, there's been a terrorist scare in a place that is as sensitive to that as New Orleans is to the subject of hurricanes.

    In New York, federal agents are helping in the search for suspects who could be connected to an SUV that appears to have been designed to detonate, but failed to do so, in Times Square.

    Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano — who is probably somewhat sensitive to criticism after her handling of the attempted airplane bombing on Christmas Day — insists they are treating this as a "potential terrorist attack."

    I wonder how long it will be before many loyal Democrats in New York begin clamoring for Obama to visit the Big Apple and reassure skittish New Yorkers that their government is working for them.

    New York is a diehard Democratic state — but wasn't Massachusetts regarded as such, until Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy's Senate seat? And no one had to park a car bomb in Government Center to achieve that.

  • Back in Washington, there are at least two issues that appear capable of generating some unpredictable momentum on their own.

    For one, there is that immigration law in Arizona. It's got immigration activists — both pro and con — all worked up. We even had a massive demonstration on that subject here in Dallas yesterday. It wasn't as big as some had predicted, but, in a state like Texas where roughly one–third of the residents are Hispanic, the potential is there for that powder keg to go off in a big way.

    Immediately, immigration may affect a few states disproportionately, but it's an issue that won't just go away. Ultimately, it affects all states, even though most are not located along our borders. A fair and equitable solution is required.

    For another, there is that issue of financial reform. I don't think significant declines in the unemployment rate are likely in the near future, and neither, it seems, do economic experts — or, for that matter, the folks in the administration. But the economic meltdown is fresh on voters' minds, and, while the incumbents in Washington may say that the indicators suggest the recession is over and the recovery is beginning, rank–and–file voters are justifiably skeptical. "These are the same indicators," they ask, "that failed to adequately warn us of what was coming back in 2007?"

    They want reassurance. Regulation in general may not be any more popular than it has ever been, but financial regulation is hip again, at least in some quarters. If Obama wants a bipartisan achievement to show the voters during the campaign in the fall, financial reform may be it. Republicans tend to have a knee–jerk reaction against regulation, but some of them might be persuaded to go along on financial regulation, provided it is done appropriately.

    Now, before an Obama defender comes back with an argument about how the recession began under Bush, let me say that I am aware of the timeline. But the perspectives of many voters will be shaped by what they see in 2010.

    Those voters had a pretty extensive to–do list for the folks who were elected in 2008. And if they think two years is too long to wait for meaningful financial reform — or anything else — to be enacted, that's going to be bad news for incumbents.

    If you need further proof of how ornery voters can get during midterm elections, may I refer you to Bill Clinton? Or, since Ronald Reagan is deceased, how about someone from his administration who is still living?
Well, there are several issues that could become important — at any time. It can seem, at times, that people want a president to be in several places at once.

And there are always going to be those who insist that their issue is more important than all the rest. I haven't even mentioned the unemployed — remember them? — who will be watching Friday's jobs report to see if last month's good news really was a sign that the recovery had begun.

If the numbers indicate that the economy is retreating, I sense some frustration that might be on the verge of boiling over. Arguing that all this started under Bush won't be enough to placate the unemployed then.

On the other hand, the news might be good. More jobs may have been added to the economy in April. But that can be a double–edged sword, raising false expectations. Suppose the economy shows tentative signs of life in the spring, then goes into a nosedive this summer and/or fall? What effect will that have on the morale of the displaced workers? And, perhaps more importantly from Obama's perspective, what effect will it have on their votes?

You see, most of what the Democrats and the Obama defenders have been offering, aside from a health care reform package that grows less popular by the day, are arguments that are best suited for a constitutional debate.

But most Americans, like Barney Fife in the attached video clip, know little about the Constitution.

For them, perception is reality.

And God help the politician(s) who fail(s) to give their issue adequate attention.

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