Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Against Conventional Wisdom Redux

On November 15, 2008, I posted an article Against Conventional Wisdom in which I laid out the reasons why Obama had some very good reasons to make a good faith offer of the Sec. of State position to Hillary. We all know how that turned out. As I re-read it tonight, two predictions stood out:
I will reach back to my Tea Leaves post and note that the political landscape is not what it was in August because the financial crisis is remaking conditions on the fly. If the conditions were the same as when Bush took office, or even when Bill Clinton did so, I would give more credence to the "He's just going to screw her over," argument because the stakes for Obama would be low, but they are not and the knowledge that bad decisions now will doom his administration should act as a brake on his more vindictive impulses.

Obama has less than two years to provide some kind of measurable economic improvement to the majority of the population, or he will lose seats in the mid-term elections and probably will be turned out of office in 2012. The domestic agenda will be all consuming under these conditions. Whatever plans Obama and his hangers-on may have had for his fairy tale presidency were jettisoned in mid-September. If he does not get the domestic situation on the right track at once - and he will only have one chance - then he is toast. This puts constraints upon him that most observers are not taking into account.
When I wrote that, I did not imagine just how badly the economic policy would be handled or how devastating the mid-term losses would be. For the most part, Obama and his foreign policy flunkies (has anyone heard from Samantha Powers lately?) have stayed out of HRC's face, though they are quick to run away when she lets loose with one of her unpalatable political truths, such as the comparison of Mexico to Columbia on the drug violence. With regard to the economic meltdown and the SOS position:
Let's talk about the Secretary of State office itself. This is not a time of peace and quiet industriousness around the globe. American hegemony is in doubt. For Obama to "play politics" with the Secretary of State position weakens American standing with other nations because it says "You people aren't important enough for me to give you our best ambassador. Your interests and your actions are of less concern to me than settling some political scores." That will not go over well, especially after the Bush years. No matter who he selects in the end, that person has to embody the full strength and resilience of the nation to other national actors. I suspect this is why Kerry is not making the cut - he is too much the milquetoast nebbish. I add that if all Obama wants is a technocrat in that position, he should pick Richard Holbrooke.

The need to deal with the economy and the interrelated domestic policy issues means that Obama must make a decision about the conduct of foreign policy. Either he must put it into a holding pattern and trust that events will not get out of hand for over two years, or else he must place it in the hands of someone who can execute it without hesitation and without any doubt on the other side that this person can act in the stead of the administration. In addition, given that the financial crisis is international, you need someone who is thoroughly versed in economics and the impact of financial markets on domestic policy. ...

But there are a few conditions under which it makes no sense for her to accept. The four most powerful positions in the cabinet are Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Treasury and National Security Adviser. Gates will be Sec. Def. for the time being. In the past, the SOS and the NSA have engaged in power struggles that have worked to the detriment of foreign policy. If Obama has the sense to put HRC in as SOS, he may suffer a failure of nerve and decide to divide powers by putting an opponent in the NSA slot to "counter balance" her influence, and we would end up with political infighting. Unless that position is filled by someone who would work with the SOS and not be a pawn in some passive-aggressive game, it would be foolish for Hillary to leave the Senate. It would need to be someone like Wes Clark or Richard Clarke. Likewise, if the Sec. Tres. is filled by some tired Wall Street insider hack, there will not be a partner to work with on economic concerns. (I myself would love to see Stiglitz. He's run the World Bank, he won't be bullied, and Wall Street has no attractions for him.)
Obama made the bold move to put someone in as SOS who would act independently and with great authority. This is to his credit and may be the most nervy thing he did in his entire presidency. If he had listened to the wrong people, he would have selected a Kerry or a Richardson or a second-tier flunky. Had he exercised similar nerve on the domestic policy side, we might be looking at run-of-the-mill midterm losses and a rebounding economy. On the other hand, I can argue that he did put someone in at Treasury who has acted independently and with great authority - but not on behalf of the nation's interests.

The conventional wisdom is correct that Obama is disengaged, and this is a deliberate choice on his part. He selected people who could run things without his involvement and has remained aloof from the messy details of the office. This is not in and of itself a bad thing, but it is a risky mode of governance in a time of crisis. Had he chosen more wisely for the economic side of things, we would all be better off.

Given his actual political constituency, I doubt he would have, even if he had known the outcome.



Anonymous said...

Ezra Klein thinks Obama should transform himself into a "foreign policy president."

That's the one part of his administration that is already working well. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

harpie said...

Samantha Power was recently spotted here:

Cable exclusive: Inside the White House conference call on child soldiers; Josh Rogin; 10/29/10

harpie said...

…and speaking of Kerry:
Senate loses its left-wing leader on foreign policy; Josh Rogin; 11/3/10
[quote] "[...]Feingold is, or was, technically the third-ranking Democratic senator on the Foreign Relations Committee, after Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) and Chris Dodd (D-CT). With Dodd retiring, Feingold stood to become chairman if Kerry were ever tapped for secretary of state. In fact, the rumor around town is that the prospect of an independent-minded Feingold leading the panel worried the White House so much that it had negative implications on their consideration of Kerry for Foggy Bottom. [...][endquote]