Last summer, I wrote a series of posts, examining the question of executive temperament. I started by exploring in detail its absence on Barack Obama; went on to examine its presence in Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, and Bobby Jindal; and ended with a piece suggesting that executive temperament, which Franklin Delano Roosevelt possessed in abundance, is insufficient: we need a President who is principled, and there are no better principles than those on which this country was founded.
I did not hear President Obama’s speech this afternoon. In the class that I am teaching with a colleague entitled Shakespeare: History, Politics, and Poetry, we had a guest lecturer, his subject was Hamlet, and I figured that I would learn more from listening to him than from listening to the President of the United States.
All of this notwithstanding, I could not help thinking of our President as I listened to the lecture – for he bears a certain resemblance to Hamlet. Like the Prince of Denmark, he is a product of the university. He may not have been taught at Occidental College and Columbia University what Hamlet was presumably taught at Wittenberg: that man is totally depraved, that the world in which we live is itself fallen as a consequence of original sin, that salvation is by faith alone, and that works are epiphenomenal and inconsequential. But he does appear, in the course of his education, to have come to believe that nothing is right or wrong but thinking makes it so, and he evidently prefers speech to deeds.
These days, to be sure, he gives fewer speeches. His handlers, who recognize the damage that overexposure can do, see to that. But he does even less – unless you consider playing golf, partying, and vacationing here, there, and everywhere a species of praxis. He could not get around to thinking about the Libyan crisis because he had . . . ahem . . . a scheduling problem. And when he finally made a move, it was, typically, too little, too late.
This afternoon’s speech – which, as a penance for my sins (which must be many and grievous), I just ploughed through – was in keeping with the President’s habitual practice. He said nothing, and he said it at considerable length. Paul Ryan and the Republicans in the House have laid out a plan to balance the budget over a considerable span of years. It is imperfect, but it is also impressive. The recent budget agreement, negotiated by John Boehner with the Democrats may be a con, as many now contend. But Paul Ryan’s budget is nothing of the sort. It is a serious, responsible attempt to chart out how we might cope with a crisis that poses a grave threat to our long-term well-being.
Obama’s response was to posture – to take cheap, predictable shots at some of the cuts proposed by the Republicans; to propose severe cuts in defence, the one part of the federal budget that may merit an increase; to lie, just as he has in the past, about the putative savings implicit in the healthcare bill passed last year, and to propose tax increases on “the richest Americans” – which is to say, on anyone who threatens to become prosperous. In typical fashion, he made dramatic claims and mentioned large numbers but provided no information as to how those numbers were generated.
In short, he went through the motions. He acknowledged that the times are out of joint and that there is something rotten in the state of America: to wit, that the national debt poses a threat to our well-being. He promised to defend the programs that lie outside the constitutional prerogatives of the federal government; he proposed to cut the programs that are central to the constitutional responsibilities of the federal government; and he lied through his teeth with regard to the fiscal consequences of our raising taxes on those who aspire to be prosperous and not repealing his healthcare reform.
I will not revisit what I detailed last summer in my examination of Barack Obama’s lack of an executive temperament. Here it is sufficient to say that, whereas Harry Truman had a sign on his desk saying, “The Buck Stops Here,” the motto of the Obama administration ought to be, “Passing the Buck."