Three Related General Lessons for Long-term Presidential Governing; Please Take Note, President Obama

–Richard E. Vatz

As a rhetorician who has been around for quite a while, I offer a few related observations on governing, some of which my more youthful compatriots, including President Barack Obama, are seemingly unaware. If some of the following points seem obvious to you, it is either because you are young and perspicacious or older and experienced.

1. Immediate Popularity and Public Support is Easy to Achieve; Wise, Long-term Policies May Earn You Neither. When in 1974 President Gerald R. Ford pardoned Richard M. Nixon in Proclamation 4311, he announced that he did so because a trial of “…a former President of the United States…[would cause] prolonged and divisive debate over the propriety of exposing to further punishment and degradation a man who has already paid the unprecedented penalty of relinquishing the highest elective office of the United States” and could cause a loss of the “tranquility” that had been restored by President Nixon’s resignation. Through that understatement President Ford saved the United States from self-destructive, retributive political justice, the same kind of reflexive bitterness that characterizes second-rate, non-democratic polities. President Ford’s action likely cost him re-election. Sometimes, it is better to be right than be president, especially if you are right as President. After President Clinton and President Bush’s presidencies, there seemed to be a recognition by President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama of the long-term foolhardiness of such legal action against temporarily unpopular presidents. Therefore…

2. Public Opinion is Focused on Short Term Satisfaction, Not Wise, Long-term, Policy Formulation. We live in a representative democracy, not a democracy-by-plebiscite. People are elected to office to make hard, but forward-seeking decisions, not to poll the public on every policy issue. The country’s obsession with public opinion militates against good, long-term policy choices. The Iraqi war was supported by public opinion during its early stages and opposed when President Bush approved the arguably successful surge. The Persian Gulf War was opposed early, but there was support for expanding that war, support which President George Herbert Walker Bush wisely ignored. All public opinion usually represents is respectively support of and opposition to policies that appear to be working or not working at the time of opinion measurement. This is why public opinion regarding military action and long-term political policy is particularly invalid, and over-attention to such opinion polls often leads to immediate illusory public satisfaction and then long-term policy failure and public dissatisfaction.

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3. Immediately Popular Decisions May Win Political Office but Hurt the Country. President Nixon was derided incessantly for this rhetorical formulation, “X may not be politically popular, but it is the right thing to do” and its converse, “X may be popular, but it is the wrong thing to do.” Too bad, and maybe he made incorrect applications, but the points were valid. Huey Long won local public support for a long time with his “Share the Wealth” and isolationist stands, prototypes for short-term popularity and long-term destructive policy. President Obama gives an unwarranted financial boost to seniors when the economy doesn’t warrant such — popular, but injurious long-term. Presidents who articulate an “exit strategy” going into war may please conflicted constituents and be electorally successful, but they also communicate a lack of resolve which emboldens our enemies and compromises the war effort.

President Barack Obama won office by formulating a consistent-sounding, anti-Bush foreign policy and domestic policy. His unambiguous support of the war in Afghanistan as opposed to his castigating of President Bush’s war in Iraq and his (Obama’s) anti-business and anti-wealth policies all had immediate appeal to an angry Democratic electorate — hungry for foreign policy success and punishment for the well-to-do — and an angry Independent electorate, some of whom were hungry for consistent conservative fiscal policies.

President Obama’s far-left terrorist trial policies, designed to undermine the intelligence community by trying mass murderers of 9/11 in New York, and the president’s foreign policy of “never fear to negotiate, even if your enemy uses negotiation only for political gain,” added to his own “share the wealth” populism (attenuated only by his temporary Wall Street concessions), are the perfect storm of short-term policy formulation at the risk of long-term political failure.

–Professor Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University

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