The big idea of 2009 was that crises could be curative — that big changes can be achieved when people are desperate.
Rahm Emanuel was not the first to suggest that a crisis should not go to waste, but he and the other members of the Obama team applied the concept with more eagerness — and nakedness — than any new administration in American history.
The animating principle of the fresh-faced Obamanauts a year ago was that American militarism, capitalistic excess, cultural intolerance and rank consumerism — combined with the stringencies of recession and war — had brought us to our knees. A teachable moment would result in the great reforms sought by the Left for generations.
Now, looking gray and utterly exhausted, the members of the Obama administration seek credit for maintaining the status quo. Rather than turning crisis into triumph, the president and his men would like to be acknowledged for not letting crisis turn into disaster.
When Janet Napolitano stuck with the script on the underwear bomber and explained that the “system worked,” she was following administration talking points. The message from Robert Gibbs and anonymous administration figures quoted by favored press outlets was the same: It could have been worse.
Sure, it was bad that someone who no reasonable American would have allowed on a plane had almost blown up nearly 300 people at 15,000 feet. And it was bad that the security apparatus — in fact, one brave Dutchman — didn’t swing into action until the terrorist’s skivvies were on fire. But we were assured that once stirred from their holiday lethargy, the authorities could have foiled other, coordinated attacks by shutting down air travel on Christmas weekend.
That’s like a pitcher taking credit for a ground rule double not being a home run.
Napolitano will probably be eased out the door next year over the gaffe, which is a little unfair. It wasn’t the messenger. It was the message.
After Napolitano had been anonymously but sternly rebuked, the president switched on his indignation at “systemic failures.”
As with other events in 2009 – the crackdown in Iran, the banker bonuses, the massacre at Fort Hood — Obama was late to put voice to the outrage felt by his fellow Americans. In each case, he found the words, but the delay invited questions about his sincerity and convictions, not to mention his Ivory Tower leadership style.
Obama’s remarks at Fort Hood may have been the finest speech of a career best known for oratory. But just hours after the attack, Obama was out in public talking to American Indian leaders about tribal subsidies, with a closing aside about a madman who had just wiped out a dozen soldiers on their way to a war Obama was escalating.
Obama nattering on about his commitment to American Indians while the nation was in shock at the carnage of Fort Hood was the strongest evidence yet that Obama’s famously quick political instincts were in fact a creation of his marketing team.
Obama’s political gift is really in not acting. He let Hillary Clinton exhaust herself in attacks, but never delivered the knockout blow. He preserved victory in his battle with John McCain by going with the flow on the Paulson-Bush bank bailout when McCain started swerving in a time of turmoil.
In these cases, Obama benefited by not moving decisively when other men might have acted quickly, though perhaps rashly. But presidents aren’t supposed to go with the flow of history, they are supposed to shape it.
It’s hard to remember that Congress wouldn’t be straining to produce an unlovable health care plan if Obama hadn’t boldly decreed it in the heady days at the beginning of the year. Now Obama exudes a strange detachment from the signature goal of his presidency, more evidence of someone who would rather guide than lead.
The Obama administration has developed an attachment to the status quo in part because the job is obviously harder than the team from Chicago ever imagined it would be. The conceit on the Left that George W. Bush was stupid caused Obama to grossly underestimate the difficulty of the office.
But another reason the Obama team has gone from extolling the transformative virtues of crises to the overall message that the system “worked” may be that muscular leadership takes Obama out of his comfort zone.
Since the president believes himself to be the embodiment of American history, he apparently doesn’t feel the need to write any new chapters.
Chris Stirewalt is the political editor of The Washington Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org