Presidents don’t run government day to day. That would be a ridiculous thing to expect one man to do. The US government spends, allocates, distributes, regulates, oversees, inspects, judges and analyzes enterprises equal to 25% of the nation’s GDP. For this reason, I have never had much respect for partisans on either side who immediately hold a president, any of them, directly and personally responsible for the actions or omissions of millions of government bureaucrats, ranging from the merely stupid to the blatantly criminal. This is not to say, however, that I don’t hold presidents accountable at all. I do, but in a more subtle way. The US presidency is a subtle job.
No one who has experienced the last eight presidents (Nixon through Obama) would say the tone of their administrations … the atmosphere, the moral and ethical feel, the strengths and weaknesses … was not unique. Presidents do put a stamp on their time in office. Their personality and convictions and values infuse the government’s actions and the nation’s mood.
What presidents do, for good or ill, is set objectives, create agendas, establish priorities, choose cabinet officers and other Senate-reviewed executives of the state. But most importantly of all, Presidents advocate for, accredit, affirm and set by their personal example with every word they utter and every action they take the moral, political and ethical “zeitgeist” that will underpin all that administration thinks, says and does.
I measure a President, in the end, by how high a bar he sets both in word and deed. I measure him by his integrity; his ability to inspire integrity in the entire government. I trust or distrust him by the width of the gap between his statements and his actions. It’s that old “judge a man not by what he says but by what he does” business. And I don’t think I’m alone in the way I judge the man in the Oval Office. I think all Americans, consciously or unconsciously, spoken or not, do the same.
I despised Richard Milhous Nixon. I thought he was a crabbed, paranoid, crumpled little man with a Napoleon complex, and I thought he was dangerous to the rule of law. He destroyed the trust that feeds the roots of American democracy.
I felt sorry for James Earl Carter, I really did, as I’ve never seen a man more totally over-matched by his responsibilities; he simply drowned in the Oval Office. He may not have been the worst president ever but he was the most pathetic.
Ronald Wilson Reagan is one of only four men who ever held the office (George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt being the other three) who truly understood what the US presidency actually is and how to use the unique powers of the office. Neither all-powerful dictator nor powerless figurehead, the power Constitutionally vested in the president is precisely that subtle moral force that springs from a deep well of intrinsic personal integrity, blended with a true love of country, I mentioned above. A true leader in the Oval Office can bring to focus a power no dictator, no monarch has ever known: the power to both rouse and lead the nation; to both generate and harvest an irresistible force called “the will of the people” simply by the skillful and honest use of moral integrity. That is the common key to what made all four of our greatest presidents great. It is for all their differences what they all shared.
George Herbert Walker Bush, like Carter, seemed to me to be lost and adrift. Good at the foreign policy and intelligence areas in which he had experience, he floundered domestically, never “connecting” with Americans.
William Jefferson Clinton I liked, though I knew he was just a surfer on a wave; a lottery winner through no fault of his own upon whom fate smiled again and again. He is the finest retail politician of the post-WW2 era and a Madison Avenue huckster. He flowed with the political tide, a surfer as I said. I expected nothing great from him and he produced nothing great, but I feared him not. 100 years from now he will be thought a third tier president. His co-president Hillary Rodham Clinton, however, scared me to death. A more ruthless, partisan, ideological political animal I’d never seen outside the USSR and China. Hill was the very first of the hyper-partisans who now populate both sides of the American landscape. She was the template, and the one person I’d deem most likely to declare herself, once elected, as ‘President for Life.’
George Walker Bush was a throwback to another era. A man of great heart, he was a classic centrist stuck in an increasingly hyper-partisan age. He would have made a fine president in the early 1900s or in the 1950s, as “Bush43″ resembled in my mind no one so much as Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. and Dwight David Eisenhower. Bush43 was a Republican Harry S. Truman, who like Truman in his day was hated by the Loud Left and maligned as a RINO by the Raging Right. He was a man who could partner with Ted Kennedy on “No Child” while tactically destroying the Democrats in the 2006 Congressional midterm elections.
Unlike Bush43, Obama is a dogmatic, hyper-partisan ideologue. The vast majority of his legislative agenda was passed with Democrat input and votes alone. The GOP was shut out of the conversation, closed out of debate, locked out of the process almost completely. Obama is incapable of compromise with the GOP because he is willing to give nothing in return. The “zeitgeist” of his administration is “win totally or do nothing and blame the GOP”.
Like Bill Clinton, Obama is an excellent retail politician. But where Bill truly connected with Jane and Joe American, Obama finds us a bit comical and mildly repulsive, and for this reason seems cold and aloof. And unlike every previous president, Obama has no close allies among international leaders. Obama is much more like co-president Hillary than President Bill. Obama is completely, utterly politicized. There is no other guiding principle to his disingenuously centrist campaign rhetoric and autocratic, hyper-partisan legislative agenda.
This cynical political calculus is used to value everything: the death of four men in Benghazi; the cost in lives of running guns in Mexico; the cost in jobs from Keystone Pipeline delays and many more issues … the calculus focuses solely on getting and holding power. How many votes. How much in campaign contributions gained or lost. The impact on the next election. Winning the House. Holding the Senate. The human impact is irrelevant. Yes, the words are mournful when necessary but the actions are invariably cold.
In this regard Obama is totally the opposite of the overly emotional Bush41. Obama shares Bush41′s lack of connection with the heartland of America but also lacks the compensation of Bush41′s command of foreign policy and intelligence expertise.
Comparing Obama to Reagan creates an interesting paradox, because Reagan is the “transformative” president President Obama has openly stated is his model. This wasn’t just empty centrist rhetoric. There are startling similarities. Both rode in on waves of economic and national distress. Both won significant victories, legislatively, in their first terms … although Reagan’s leadership and command of the “voice of the people” was such that he won his victories compromising with a Democrat-ruled Congress, while Obama had total control of both Houses, simply dictating law. Both men fostered revolutionary ideas and won great ideological victories. There are startling dissimilarities as well.
Reagan was direct with words, consistent with ideals between his campaign rhetoric and legislative agenda; clear with desires and willing to compromise on details and conditions, earning trust from Democrats and Republicans alike. Reagan’s legendary drinking buddy was Thomas Philip “Tip” O’Neill, as tough a Democrat House Speaker as ever slammed a gavel. Obama is manipulative with words. His campaign rhetoric bears little resemblance to his actions and decisions. He is unwilling to compromise on anything, has no friends in the House or Senate, and has earned the distrust of even his strongest progressive supporters on many issues.
In the 1982, 1984 and 1986 elections Democrats ran toward Reagan, seeking to link themselves with this great man in order to get re-elected. In the 2010 and 2012 elections Democrats ran away from Obama and the signature legislation of his first term, ObamaCare, disclaiming even the votes they cast to pass it. Joe Manchin (D, PA) went so far as to shoot bullet holes in the massive law to portray his opposition.
Some differences reflect love of country. Where Reagan loved and embraced the US Constitution, Obama has routinely ignored it or “reinterpreted” it. Reagan thought the Oval Office hallowed ground, demanding coat and tie from any man entering it. Obama routinely abuses the furniture.
Where Reagan came to represent all the American people hoped and dreamed for themselves and their children, Obama has come to represent the sum of all their fears.
Carter and Obama are routinely compared, but frankly I think this is lame. Carter was clueless, lost in the weeds. Obama has been anything but lost and knows exactly what he’s doing. To think of Obama as Carter’s clone is a huge mistake. Nor has Obama been a cypher as was Ford. Obama, on the contrary, has had a massive impact on the nation.
Which brings me to the president I think most resembles, explains, and illuminates Obama: Richard Milhous Nixon. Both men thought of the law as more of a guideline than an obligation, more of an option than a requirement … both being willing to do whatever was necessary to acquire a desired end. For Nixon and Obama, much more than for any other president, “the ends justify the means.” Nixon had no calculus save politics and Obama clearly shares this trait. Nixon never really cared about the human tragedies that surrounded him unless it impacted him personally or politically … nor does Obama. Both quickly stonewalled any political liability or embarrassment and “moved on”.
To the point I made way up at the top of this rant about the “zeitgeist” of a presidency, both men fostered and abetted and rewarded that mindset that famously found voice in Nixon’s “I am not a crook” and in Hillary Clinton’s “What difference does it make at this point?”, a statement I think perfectly characterizes the central tenet of both Nixon’s and Obama’s presidencies. The politically inconvenient deaths of four men six months prior to Hill’s infamous rant draws “what difference does it make” from the same Obama administration mindset that still routinely blames its failures on the Bush43 administration now five years gone. That same mindset that had Nixon using the IRS to attack his “enemies” is evident in the politically motivated IRS assaults on Tea Party organizations last year.
President Obama has transformed America, using Reagan as his model, of that there is no question. But to achieve that he’s used not the compromising approach and healing tools of Ronald Reagan but the dictatorial mentality and vindictive tools of Richard Nixon.
In my mind, to call this president “Barack Hussein Nixon” would perfectly locate him in the annals of American presidential history.
(Postscript: since I wrote this May 8th the MSM has suddenly exploded with “BHO as RMN” stories and blogs, including this Sunday cartoon by Michael Ramirez, which makes me look like a “me too”. But I swear on my Mother’s grave I got there first … LMAO!!!!)