This is part of a challenge posed to me by a friend to summarize my thoughts on the Obama presidency in 500 words. I think several other friends will be attempting this project as well so I’ll link to them as they go online.
One of the big themes of the 2012 election is the long game, by which we mean the big picture, long-term vision of a candidate; less the specific policies they pursue and more the sort of world they wish to create. Andrew Sullivan described Obama’s long game in his Newsweek cover story and Ron Paul’s campaign is about nothing but the long game (the long game in his case being “Rand Paul 2020”). In assessing a presidency, the long game may well be the most important point.
The specific facts of an administration will often be fleeting and ephemeral. Even an administration as disastrous as that of George W. Bush doesn’t leave a ton of specific relics behind: We’re out of Iraq, the economy is beginning to rebound, our reputation abroad is being repaired, Machiavellian fiends like Cheney and Rumsfeld no longer hold public office. Additionally, Obama has been a limited success in the two areas where Bush was weakest: foreign affairs and the domestic economy. Like President Clinton, Obama has attempted to reduce the out-of-control military budget and adopt a less jingoistic attitude toward the rest of the world (though it should be noted that both have indulged in the occasional “military assistance” project that represents a milder form of the same tired interventionism). Also like Clinton, he has reduced the annual deficit. Obviously that came at the expense of an enormous increase in the national debt, an unfortunate but unavoidable outcome given the recession he inherited. On these points, I consider the Obama administration a success.
It’s the long game that I find troubling. Obama has a disturbing confidence in his own wisdom and ability to make correct decisions. And that same confidence characterizes his view of how government can promote the common good through taking an active role in community life. This is what most worries me about his presidency and is why I won’t be voting for him in the fall; not the particular actions per se, but his posture as he acts.
In the case of another professorial president, Woodrow Wilson, this self-confidence led to a century of interventionism and strained relations with majority world nations. Like Wilson, Obama’s is a technocratic mind, which can be just as dangerous as the plug-your-ears know nothingism of his predecessor. Bush could dismiss sound scholarship as elitist mumbo-jumbo, but the technocrat can rationalize bad ideas, even in the face of massive opposition because he views himself as an expert. Sometimes it’s the most intelligent amongst us who can behave the most absurdly because of their ability to make insane things seem reasonable. I think Obama’s presidency has had more good than bad thus far, but the technocratic mentality means he’s never far from a major misstep.