Monday, December 7, 2009

Easy to say.

President Obama has made his long awaited Afghanistan speech.  I’m not thrilled about his decision to
add wood to that insatiable fire, nor convinced that it will make much
difference in the long run.  But
what came to mind in watching another eloquent performance was how much ink and
airtime would be expended in the following days parsing his words and opining
on his decision.  More precisely, I
thought about the difference between his job and the myriad of commentators
from broadcast and print to countless bloggers, myself included.  I also thought about that inspiring and
hopeful 2008 campaign for change.  My
conclusion: it is easier to say than
to do–far easier.

It is a clichéd truism that a democracy depends heavily and equally
upon citizens both having and exercising free speech.  In that, for all its weaknesses,
punditry of all stripes is essential.  Between elections especially, it’s all we have, and
fortunately there are many very thoughtful people across the political spectrum
to challenge office holders and us. 
An objective view from independent outsiders with little or no vested interest
is of particular value, but we shouldn’t discount the importance of subjective
opinion, which so often reflects what many of us are thinking.  That said, in the end talk is cheap.  We have no price (other than loss of credibility and perhaps reputation)
to pay for our expressed thoughts, no responsibility.  That makes it easy to be a purist and to deal in absolutes.

The President and those who serve with him find themselves in a
totally different situation.  With
the rhetoric of campaigns behind them (rhetoric often not unlike unfettered punditry),
they must move beyond saying to doing.  In December 2004, during a question and answer session with
troops, Army Specialist Thomas Wilson asked Donald Rumsfeld about the
deficiencies in equipment born by soldiers in Iraq.  He got a vintage and now legendary response.  You
go to war
, the Defense Secretary said, with
the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.
  The answer evoked universal outrage and,
in the context of an already controversial war, rightly so.  The now discredited Rumsfeld can be
accused of many things including vanity and insensitivity, but even his
harshest critics don’t think him stupid. 
His response to Wilson was ill timed but it was no doubt candid and,
hard as it is to admit, insightful. 
In fact, it applies precisely to the predicament faced by this
Administration.  You don’t lead the
government or deal with the problems you might want but the ones you have.

So Obama, the President verses the candidate, was destined to
disappoint not because his inspiring campaign words were without substance, but
because he (like all his predecessors) is constrained by all those pesky facts on the ground.  Frank Rich and Paul Krugman on the
Left, David Brooks and Ross Douthat on the Right are free to say whatever they
want, and all do it exceptionally well but, as Ram Emanuel once pointed out, they don’t have
to get anything through Congress or convert their words, no matter how on
target, into action.  Obama must
function in what I suggested in my last post are essentially dysfunctional
facts on the ground.  If you have
any doubt about that, tune into C-Span and watch the Senate debating healthcare.

Democracy is messy and cumbersome.  While Presidents have enormous power on some level (Bush
took us into war and curtailed stem cell research), they are severely
constrained in most matters of lasting import, especially those that involve
real change.  That’s not an excuse
for deficiencies of leadership and delivery, but the stark reality given voice
in Rumsfeld’s notorious remark.  It
is part of that sobering reality that makes it so much harder to do than to say.  Take healthcare
where the President doesn’t merely need concurrence, but 60 Senate votes, a
super majority, just to have any substantive doing considered. 

At issue during the long ’08 campaign was the importance of experience
for successful governance.  At one
point, Bill Clinton suggested to Charlie Rose that going with Obama was like
throwing the dice.  In the end,
voters settled the issue, bringing a fresh face in the White House.  But in the realm of doing rather than
saying, the new President opted for a highly experienced team.  Read Peter Baker’s interesting NY
Times report
on the Afghanistan decision and you’ll see him surrounded by a
group of the most seasoned hands. 
That’s both good and bad news and it does impact on doing.   On the one hand, as Jimmy Carter
discovered surrounding himself with bright, neophytes, you need people with
experience in facing tough issues. 
On the other, the same people bring baggage that constrains doing, if
only that you must take their been there
done that
view into serious account. 
They aren’t likely to want potted
roles.  They also aren’t
likely to be change agents, but the reality is you can’t function without
them.  Again, doing is much harder
than saying.

Don’t read this as an excuse for where we are or satisfaction with, or
acceptance of, the status quo.  I’m
far from being a happy camper. 
Like others, I’ll keep at the saying what I think and parenthetically keep
on hoping.  My only point in noting
the challenges of doing is that we with voices raised and keyboards struck
should be a little more humble–and yes forgiving–in our saying.  Many of us will find that part hard,
though not nearly as hard as doing.

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