The editorial board at The Economist (which apparently considers itself a “newspaper” despite coming out weekly in magazine format) praises President Obama for having “already done some commendable things” in the foreign policy arena but charges that, domestically, “His performance has been weaker than those who endorsed his candidacy, including this newspaper, had hoped.”
They note that, after a euphoric election, “Mr Obama’s once-celestial approval ratings are about where George Bush’s were at this stage in his awful presidency.” They excoriate him, in particular, for “failure to grapple as fast and as single-mindedly with the economy as he should have done. His stimulus package, though huge, was subcontracted to Congress, which did a mediocre job: too much of the money will arrive too late to be of help in the current crisis.”
They are especially critical of his “failure to staff the Treasury” which they characterize as “a shocking illustration of administrative drift.” They admit that “Filling such jobs is always a tortuous business in America” but contend that “Mr Obama has made it harder by insisting on a level of scrutiny far beyond anything previously attempted. Getting the Treasury team in place ought to have been his first priority.
They acknowledge that he is “learning” but “Mr Obama has a long way to travel if he is to serve his country—and the world—as he should.”
While much of this is fair criticism, it does ignore the systemic factors at work.
One of the flaws of the American system is that we frequently elect amateurs to high office, thus imposing a steep learning curve. In parliamentary systems, leaders work their way up through the ranks, filling key ministerial posts, and learning the ropes. A new premier from the out party has typically been the leader of a Shadow Government and a new leader from the in party has typically been the number two man in the Government. A new president, by contrast, has typically never been part of an administration and may never have lived in Washington before taking office.
In recent years, Americans have preferred state governors for the presidency, which typically meant people came to the White House knowing how to create and manage a staff but with little grasp of How Washington Works or much knowledge of a whole range of issues that states don’t deal with. Conversely, someone coming from Capitol Hill is much savvier on those scores but have no clue how to run an administration.
Obama, alas, is the worst of both worlds, having neither gubernatorial experience nor much Washington experience. He’s been an incredibly talented dilettante, getting elected to one job and then the next without learning the ropes. He’s a fast learner and will get the hang of it but, to come back to the Hillary Clinton quip that starts the Economist piece, “the Oval Office is no place for on-the-job-training.” Except, as already noted, that it usually is.
Of course, Obama has taken over at a particularly unfortunate time, having inherited two wars and a global financial crisis, so his margin for error is even less than usual.
Regardless, anyone who has extremely high expectations that a new president is going to reshape the world has a strong likelihood of being disappointed.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.