In recent months the New York Times has been running news from the civil war years. At the very least I thought this was curious when I first noticed it. I though it was a little predictive and possibly incendiary later on during the squabbles over the debt. However, it did remind it’s readers of the parallels between this and that time. An increasingly angry piece of our nation growing louder and more insistent over what they perceived to be an erosion of “American” values and a lessening of their status. As I’ve written before, there will probably not be a another civil war or revolution and if there was, as with the Civil war, it probably wouldn’t turn out the way those who call for it expect.
However it is interesting to note that there are many distinct perspectives on our current situation. Different “world views” colliding loudly, all of them claiming to see the situation as clear as day.
For example the current President is seen by the far left as weak, abrogating his authority as a leader and being led by elitists. The far right sees him as an incompetent usurper, drunk with power and hell bent on “socializing” their home land. In each’s view all the facts are there “plain as the nose on your face.” And yet neither view can be completely true, if the other is even partially true.
Let’s look at three examples of the Presidents actions and see if there is light in either view.
First, Libya. The circumstances are certainly strange that have brought the US in to the conflict in this North African nation. We begin with the events around the area that notably began in Tunisia spreading to Egypt and then to several other countries including Libya. The Libyan leader proclaims that the revolutionaries will be crushed and proceeds to continue a campaign to do exactly that.
The UN gets involved at the behest of a league of Arab nations, and the US commits to military support which it lends almost immediately. President Obama clearly supports this effort and authorizes the necessary troops and equipment. Although unlike just about any other recent conflict, except Bosnia, the US has no “Boots on the ground” instead providing air support and drone missions. The bulk of the military action is undertaken by French and English forces. The move was controversial to be sure, especially after two conflicts in the region where we took the lead and adding additional expenses we certainly don’t need, although they are minor in comparison to other conflicts. It was however, clearly in line with the Presidents priorities for the Middle East, as outlined in his Cairo speech.
Congress must approve any declaration of war. Congress must approve any military expenditures within 60 days of hostilities. Instead a motion to cease hostilities is defeated in Congress and the next day a motion to not further impede expenses for this conflict is passed. So the President clearly got his way on this issue and a humanitarian crisis is averted and the heat dies down. What are we to make of that? Is this the incompetent leader drunk with power or the toy leader caving to the elitists? Or does it have more to do with Congress in this case?
Next let’s look at the first round of deficit negotiations. The President releases his own deficit commissions recommendations and then seems to stand back from the fray. This brings forth the Ryan plan from Congress, nobody really likes it but it is a substantive plan. The wrangling begins and the plan looks more and more extreme, all the while giving the President ample time to shoot holes in it. The plan becomes a kind of conservative wish list for a new and less intrusive government, and the American people get time to look it over.
The press is not good on Ryan’s plan, and even his own constituency gets a “media moment” to grumble about it. Did the President get his way on that one too? Or was that more to do with Congress? Certainly members of Congress on both sides of the isle have derided the President for not having his own plan, but the question then becomes why developing plans on changing the way Congress spends the money it approves and removing spending already approved in budget after budget is somehow the responsibility of the President. At any rate it’s all to easy to forget the findings of the debt commission, which was created at the President’s request and led by the vice president.
Last let’s look at the debt ceiling debate, which is a conflict it is my fervent hope that we are almost through. Here in direct negotiations with both parties the President calls on them time and time again to produce substantive results, and then in the final week backs off and instead calls on the American people to “let your voice be heard.” We respond to those calls, by flooding the email servers and switchboards of Congress with over 30,000 calls an hour, twice. First Tuesday the day after the President’s televised address and then again Saturday after his Friday address. Magically, on Sunday reports of substantive progress are made. By Monday morning a frame work agreement is reached. However, this agreement contains an allowance for the President to raise the debt limit over the objections of Congress. It’s possibly the last remnants of the McConnel plan which allowed Congress to vote against everything and the President to veto their votes and do it anyway. Who won that one? It may be far too soon to tell but it’s clear that both sides of Congress, and the President took a beating. However, it did get done and there are sighs of relief all over Europe and the rest of the planet this morning. Even if it takes another week to work out the details, for now, all is better if not well. The leaders of both major parties are in support and the Tea party is painted into a corner, dammed if they do and dammed if they don’t.
Besides the obvious tilting of power to the Executive branch by a Congress reticent to be making the hard and vote loosing decisions, it makes me wonder if the President isn’t playing a very canny game here. Especially when he was the first to dismiss the 14th amendment ploy to raise the debt ceiling, which surely would have made him out to be exactly the “drunk with power” executive that many of his detractors say he is. He also avoided being the “Straw horse” for a target practice, and got Congress themselves to “put some skin in the game.”
But while the President does seem to be winning the political advantage in case after case, he’s clearly not wining the popular one. Even though polls show most of America stands with the President in most of his positions, a balanced approach to the debt limit and deficit reduction, a concentration on American infrastructure and investment as a salve for the current economy and so on, he has sunk to “Bush” level approval ratings. And yet when he calls, the people respond, overwhelmingly. What do we make of that?
It is my belief that this Presidency will be one of the most discussed in the next 100 years. This is certainly one of the most difficult times in our nation’s history. We have calls for radical restructuring from both the right and left, two major conflicts dragging on and on as well as a minor third in full swing, a serious recession eating away at our own as well as the world’s confidence in us and uncomfortably high unemployment with no clear end in sight. What president can we name that had such a time to preside in?
Copyright Prentiss Gray 2011