Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Policy and Impatience

I just read a very interesting and thoughtful article in the online edition of Foreign Policy magazine. The article, titled 'The Carter Syndrome', focuses on how US Presidents often approach policy through four schools of thought:

"In general, U.S. presidents see the world through the eyes of four giants: Alexander Hamilton, Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson. Hamiltonians share the first Treasury secretary's belief that a strong national government and a strong military should pursue a realist global policy and that the government can and should promote economic development and the interests of American business at home and abroad. Wilsonians agree with Hamiltonians on the need for a global foreign policy, but see the promotion of democracy and human rights as the core elements of American grand strategy. Jeffersonians dissent from this globalist consensus; they want the United States to minimize its commitments and, as much as possible, dismantle the national-security state. Jacksonians are today's Fox News watchers. They are populists suspicious of Hamiltonian business links, Wilsonian do-gooding, and Jeffersonian weakness."

Full article available Here.

I think this article only underscores the need for a balanced, common sense approach to American policy. None of these schools of thought are workable alone. All suffer from, at their most pure level, an idealism that is unworkable in the real world. Certainly the Bush years, where Jacksonian absolutism held sway, did not solve much yet cost greatly. What is needed, in my opinion, is a core of the Jeffersonian but infused with elements of the others. After all, it's pure common sense that America cannot stop all evil or decree democracy to all the nations of the world. We can't force our ideals on those who resist without becoming that which we have always claimed that we stand against.

Obama is in an extremely difficult situation, as often happens when there is a major change in leadership after 8 years. Part of the challenge is the American people themselves. Conservatives want only a continuation, at least for the most part, of the policies of the Bush years. Liberals want a complete reversal of those policies. Both sides expect everything they ask for, now, or they are furious. As with most things, the truth is in the middle somewhere. The Liberals must accept that Obama cannot simply sign a stack of Executive Orders and whisk away all signs of the Bush years. And Conservatives must accept that the Bush doctrine is inherently flawed and did little in eight years to solve our problems. But none of this is going to happen quickly. America needs to be the one thing it's always been very bad at; we need to be patient.

I do believe that Obama is trying very hard to find that common sense path out of the forest. But since he can't just wrench it all into line with his preferences in one fell swoop, he has to make changes here and there with an eye to the long term rather than tomorrow's headlines. And every policy initiative carries a political cost that he cannot ignore, any more than any other President in our history. And it's these political costs that I believe are the most damaging. Or more accurately, it's the need to weigh them so carefully. I suspect that there are many policies that, given free reign, Obama would change tomorrow. But for every Presidential action, there is an amplified political reaction. Just look at the healthcare reform agenda. It has taken the better part of a year just to get disparate House and Senate bills passed. It still remains to be seen if these two, very different bills can be merged into anything useable. This single agenda item has cost Obama huge amounts of time, energy and intense negotiation and it's not over yet. And just as striking, it may not end up very close to what he actually wanted in the first place. And we still have, in no particular order, the economy, Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, 'Don't Ask Don't Tell', security threats, Iran, North Korea, the list goes on. And these are all issues that seem to have few moderates. We seem to be in an era when everything is a partisan war. Obama has to step carefully and pick his fights. He cannot risk too many battles at once without the risk of losing them all.

The irony to it all is that no matter what he does, the Right will scream in horror that he's moving too fast and the Left will roar in frustration that he's moving too slow. Americans, in my opinion, need to step back and take a few breaths before agonizing over what Obama has or has not done. In many cases it's obvious why he's made the decisions he has. Doesn't mean I agree with them all, but I can at least see why he has made them. Americans have to control this emotional knee-jerk reactionist tendency. We must all use our brains and see that there is more to policy issues than simple slogans and sound bites. I think what many just don't understand, is that being President is much more about doing what you Can do rather than what you Want to do.

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