Iraq and the economy are hard problems. President Barack Obama seems to be handling them gracefully. Iran and health care are hard problems. The president is having more difficulty with them.
Could it be more than a coincidence that this Democratic president seems more sure-footed with the problems he inherited from Republican President George W. Bush than he is with the problems he inherited from the failures of Democratic Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton?
Let’s begin by acknowledging that none of these problems is remotely settled and that even when they are settled they may not be over. Iraq, Iran, the economy and health care are destined to be American challenges for at least a generation, for imbedded in them are far bigger philosophical questions such as:
Can America extend its Western political values into very different cultures around the world? Can American diplomats and military strategists sort out threats from nation-states as opposed to those from groups of the disaffected and the irredentist? How big a role should government play in the economy? How big a role should government play in health care?
These issues will not be settled even if President Obama serves two terms, and Obama will pass on several problems, including some that are not even on the agenda today, to his successor. The presidency is like a family. You inherit some things, and you pass some things on.
For his initial four months, Obama seemed insistent on blaming his predecessor for the issues that were piled high on his plate like the pasta doled out to swimmers the night before a championship meet. That seems less so now, no doubt because a president who completes his first winter and first spring would look unseemly if he constantly complained about the problems he inherited reluctantly in a job he sought avidly.
Indeed, Obama is not alone in being a recipient of political probate. Franklin Roosevelt inherited the Depression, Dwight Eisenhower a Cold War. The hot war in Vietnam was inherited by John F. Kennedy, then by Lyndon B. Johnson, then Richard M. Nixon, and its embers were still glowing by the time Gerald R. Ford became president.
But inheritances also are opportunities. There would have been no New Deal, for example, if there had been no Great Depression. Rahm Emmanuel was not the first person to conclude that a crisis is too important to waste.
Now back to our own time (though I am about to argue that almost nothing begins in our own time).
America’s troubles with Iran date to the Eisenhower years but the flash point came in the Carter years, when the president was befuddled by the Iranian Revolution, prompting the seizing of American diplomats and embassy personnel who were held hostage, along with the entire administration, for 444 days.
At a loss for words?
That was 30 years ago. (Look for the retrospectives on Nov. 4.) Today the United States has a president of unusual eloquence and loquaciousness. But until this past week, he’s not been quite sure what to say, though for a while he said very little very often. This is, to be sure, a difficult moment. So was October 1956 (Hungarian Revolution) and August 1968 (Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia). Then again, so was December 1979 (Soviet invasion of Afghanistan), and no one remembers the more vociferous U.S. reaction to that — another Carter legacy — with much nostalgia.
American presidents have proposed a comprehensive overhaul of the health care system at least since Harry S Truman, but it was the spectacular promise, the spectacular buildup, the spectacular bureaucratic nightmare and the spectacular failure of the Clinton plan that casts such a long shadow on the Obama effort. Has any advertising campaign been quite so successful as the Harry and Louise offensive that helped doom Clinton’s initiative? These two are 16 years older and still they haunt health care overhaul.
So, while the Obama administration paints itself as the unlucky beneficiary of the Bush debacle, it is also the victim of Democratic stumbles.
Today there are many defenders of Carter’s years after the presidency but few of his years in the White House — not even of his efforts on energy, which had they been pursued might have avoided a whole world of trouble.
And while the world increasingly recognizes Hillary Rodham Clinton as the most powerful living woman (Neda Agha-Soltan, killed during a Tehran protest last week, is the most powerful deceased woman of the moment), the administration is lucky to have Clinton tucked away safely in the State Department, far from the health care debate.
Nature abhors a vacuum and politics abhors silence, so the president’s near silence on his two Democratic inheritances, Iran and health care, were bound to be broken. Iran fell first.
Breaking his silence
The president’s Republican critics (and some Democrats) were arguing that an American president could not remain quiet while Iranians were risking their lives for the democratic values we hold dear — and presumably are trying to foster around the world.
“This is a human rights issue,” Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Obama’s opponent in last year’s election, said on the CBS program “Face the Nation” last week. “This is an issue about whether people can freely demonstrate their disagreement with their government without being beaten and killed in the streets. And this has a long, long history of American advocacy and leadership for human rights.”
Until Tuesday, when he spoke of the “courage and the dignity” of the Iranian people and said the world community and the United States were “appalled and outraged” by Iran’s violent crackdown, the president was uncharacteristically reticent.
He remains reticent on health care, except to make it clear, in a series of private meetings, that he wants a comprehensive bill this year. His strategy apparently is to let Congress sort out the details, but before long his preferences are going to have to be expressed in public.
It’s been relatively easy for Obama to handle the problems he inherited from his rivals. It’s the ones he inherited from his allies that may prove most difficult.