Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
Is Obamania Stopping Us From Questioning Obama's Competence?
Let’s imagine what would have happened had George W. Bush entered the White House, with one nominee for Commerce Secretary already withdrawn because of an investigation the most basic background check should have uncovered. All we would have heard about was Republicans’ corruption and Team Bush’s incompetence. Imagine it was followed by a trio of tax slobs, topped by a new Commerce Secretary from across the aisle who realized a week after his nomination that he and the administration were incompatible. (One wonders, did it take that long for Judd Gregg to realize that he was a conservative Republican and that the Republicans lost, he was being hired by a Democratic president?) And then, to top it all off, imagine if one of the tax slackers, who, by the way, was now in charge of the Internal Revenue Service, whose services were so in need his careless paperwork was overlooked, launched a critical financial program in such a nervous, vague, hamhanded way, the stock market plummeted after his presentation. This personnel trainwreck would have created a Tsunami of contemptuous laughter, particularly among reporters, pundits, and comedians.
This narrative suggests political bias, that the so-called “liberal media” was tough on George W. Bush, the Republican, and soft on Barack Obama the great liberal democratic hope. But former President Bill Clinton – and any of the many Clinton retreads still getting used to their return to power – could remind us all that Bill Clinton was pummeled mercilessly when his Attorney General nominee, Zoe Baird, had to withdraw because of her nanny problems, and the next leading candidate, Judge Kimba Wood, was caught in a similar embarrassment.
These – by contrast, relatively minor errors – saddled Clinton’s administration with a reputation for buffoonery. Clinton had a terrible time trying to shift the broader narrative and prove that he was indeed ready for prime time. To achieve that, he ended up having to reassign one of his young superstars, George Stephanopoulos, and hire an older Washington hand, David Gergen, within six months.
Careful analyses of the 2008 presidential campaign will discover a systematic bias in favor of Obama. His story was fresher, more compelling, and thus less scrutinized than Hillary Clinton’s, John McCain’s, or the other also-rans. Even some journalists have admitted in retrospect that many reporters liked Obama, loved the idea of Obama, and frequently gave him a free pass.
Still, there may also be a more benign explanation. The financial meltdown has sobered Americans – and reporters. Barack Obama’s call for a new, more constructive politics have resonated. This really is not the time for the kind of partisan, “gotcha” bickering that has marred our politics for so long.
All this makes Obama’s repeated missteps so disturbing. The stakes are too high for amateur hour. Obama needs to explain why his personnel process has been so spectacularly incompetent, what he is going to do to fix it, and what he has learned from this experience. There is a lot of goodwill and desperation out there, both of which Obama has been able to tap effectively. But rather than just talking beautifully, he must start governing competently.