Barack Obama is not a skillful strategist like Bill Clinton. He is not a gifted rhetorician like Ronald Reagan. Nor is he a bold and inspiring leader like Abraham Lincoln. And he can’t seem to shake himself loose from the strings that attach him to the trial lawyers, to big labor, and, surprisingly, to the standard banker-economists who got us into the mess we are in now. But he is an honest man. He is intelligent, analytical, and knowledgeable. And he tries hard to think through the dilemmas which confront us and to tell us clearly and straightforwardly what he wants to do and why he wants to do it.
But it doesn’t seem to work.
Contrast this to the politicians he is up against. When John Boehner at the height of the debt ceiling crisis answered him on the national media he simply did not tell the truth. He said that the president would not compromise, would not take yes for an answer, and wanted it all his own way. But he cannot have forgotten that he had negotiated Obama into far more cuts than Obama and his caucus had wanted, thought wise or even palatable in return for a modest increase in revenue to be achieved by closing egregious and unfair loopholes in personal and corporate taxes. This is the same compromise recommended by the “Gang of Six,” which included the extremely conservative and admirably patriotic Senator Tom Coburn, by the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson group, and by Republican economists like Martin Feldstein. It was the Speaker who, Arafat-like, walked away from that deal because he concluded he lacked the skill or the muscle or the spine to sell it to his own caucus. Let it be said that this compromise included recalculating the cost of living formula for social security—a change every responsible economist recommends—but the equally rigid Nancy Pelosi rejected.
And Mitt Romney, supposedly a man experienced in business realities, in a parody of himself, has pronounced that he opposed the deal reached on the very eve of default—because it did not go far enough in the direction of what the Tea Party wanted.
Where can we find leadership that fits today’s circumstances, as Obama’s cool, rational approach and clear-headed rhetoric apparently do not?
I turn to the ancient Greek comic author, Aristophanes, speaking at what must have seemed a similar time. In his play The Knights two citizens are looking for a leader fit for the times. They come upon a sausage-seller and propose him as ideal for the job.
“Tell me,” asks the astonished man, “how a sausage-seller can become a great man.”
“You will be great,” they answer him, “precisely because you are a sad rascal without shame, no better than a common market rogue.”
The dialogue shifts to fit exactly the situation of Sarah Palin (remember the Katie Couric interview), the god-parent of the Tea Party. The sausage seller objects: “But I have not had the least education. I can only read, and that very badly.” And he is answered: “That is what may stand in your way, almost knowing how to read. A demagogue must be neither an educated nor an honest man; he has to be an ignoramus and a rogue. But do not, do not let go this gift, which the oracle promises. . . Politics these days is no occupation for an educated man, a man of character. Ignorance and total lousiness are better. Don’t jettison such god-given advantages.”
Look at the roster of leaders vying for my party’s nomination. At the top of the list stand Mitt Romney, who will say anything, and Michele Bachmann, who assured us that defaulting on the national debt is no big deal, while a sensible man like Jon Huntsman is in single digits.
Oh, I know: it’s not funny, but one must either laugh or weep.