Can This Presidency be Saved?

Walter Russel Mead asks the question.

Can the Obama Presidency still be saved?

To some, the question may seem premature or even insulting.  President Obama’s personal popularity remains high and the most recent RealClearPolitics poll average has him at a more than respectable 47.6 percent approval; while the President’s popularity is drifting lower, congressional Republicans have been losing ground to their Democratic rivals in recent polls, and the Republican primary field remains both uninspiring and polarized.  Small government, libertarian and Jeffersonian Paulites, globalist ‘great nation’ conservatives, conservative social activists and Jacksonian hyperpatriots are united only in their antipathy to the Obama administration and it is not yet clear whether a GOP candidate can unify this agitated but inchoate mass of energy into a strong and focused campaign.

Nevertheless it seems increasingly clear that the Obama presidency has lost its way; at home and abroad it flounders from event to event, directionless and passive as one report after another “unexpectedly” shows an economy that refuses to heal.  Most recently, the IMF has cut its growth forecast for the United States in 2011 and 2012.  With growth predicted at 2.5 percent this year and 2.7 percent next, unemployment is unlikely to fall significantly before Election Day.  On the same day, the latest survey of consumer sentiment shows an “unexpectedly sharp” dip in consumer confidence.  The economy is not getting well; geopolitically, the US keeps adding new countries to the bomb list, but the President has fallen strangely silent about the five wars he is fighting (Iraq, Afghanistan, tribal Pakistan, Libya and now Yemen).

The problem is only partly that the President’s policies don’t appear to be working.  Presidents fail to be re-elected less because their policies aren’t working than because they have lost control of the narrative.  FDR failed to end the Depression during two terms in office but kept the country’s confidence through it all.  Richard Nixon hadn’t ended the Vietnam War in 1972 and George W. Bush hadn’t triumphed in what we still knew as the Global War on Terror in 2004.  In all these cases, however, the presidents convinced voters that they understood the problem, that they were working on it, and that their opponents were clueless throwbacks who would only make things worse.

Barak Obama was elected largely because he was a blank slate on which the electorate could project their hopes and dreams. He was a good campaigner who took full advantage of that fact. He has not been so good at actually governing or leading. He seems to be in far over his head, which is no surprise since the presidency is the first job he has held in which he has actually had to manage anything. He is more inclined to blame the country’s problems on the previous administration than to create new policies to resolve them. And, as Mead has been writing, what he calls the “Blue Social Model” has been breaking down and it is not entirely clear what will replace it. The times call for strong leadership and we are not getting it.

Americans are realistic enough to understand that the breakdown of the blue social model is a messy process and that perhaps no president can deliver a pain free transition to the next stage.  But what they aren’t hearing from President Obama is a compelling description of what has gone wrong, how it can be fixed, and how the policies he proposes will take us to the next level.

What they hear from this administration are defensive responses: Hooveresque calls for patience mingled with strange-sounding attacks on ATMs and sharp, opportunistic jabs at former President Bush.  The White House has responded to strategic challenges at home and abroad with tactical maneuvers.

Voters sense that we live in historic times that demand leadership of a different kind.  What does President Obama think about the fiscal squeeze forcing trade-offs between state employee benefits and services to the poor?  How much trouble is the American middle class in — and what changes are needed to save it?

The President of the United States has to own this conversation.  His vision, his initiatives must dominate the political scene.  His opponents may fight him and defeat his proposals in Congress — that is not the worst thing that can happen.  Harry Truman did very well running against a ‘do-nothing’ Congress in 1948.

At a time of historic anxiety and tension like the present, the President of the United States cannot be an administrator, a fence-sitter, a finger-pointer.  He must first and foremost stand for something — and he must be able to make that something resonate with the voters.  The President’s job is to lead.

So, can this presidency be saved? Do we really want to? My answer to both questions is no.

The Lash

Here is an interesting idea in the Washington Post. Peter Moskos thinks that we should consider corporal punishment as an alternative to incarceration.

America has a prison problem. Never in the history of the world has a country locked up so many of its people. We have more prisons than China, and it has a billion more people than we do. Forty years ago America had 338,000 people behind bars. Today 2.3 million are incarcerated. We have more prisoners than soldiers. Something has gone terribly wrong.

The problem — mostly due to longer and mandatory sentences combined with an idiotic war on drugs — is so abysmal that the Supreme Court recently ordered 33,000 prisoners in California to be housed elsewhere or released. If California could simply return to its 1970 level of incarceration, the savings from its $9 billion prison budget would cut the state’s budget deficit in half. But doing so would require the release of 125,000 inmates, and not even the most progressive reformer has a plan to reduce the prison population by 85 percent.

Flogging seems barbaric to us but actually conditions in most prisons are far worse. if I had to choose between getting five or ten lashes or spending five years in prison getting beaten up and raped, it would be an easy choice for me.

Moskos seems to think that the root of the problem is the idea that prisons would rehabilitate the criminals housed in them. That has obviously not worked so well and instead they have become huge warehouses, which actually contribute to crime.

The idea was that penitentiaries would heal the criminally ill just as hospitals cured the physically sick. It didn’t work. Yet despite — or perhaps because of — the failures of the first prisons, states authorized more and larger prisons. With flogging banned and crime not cured, there was simply no alternative. We tried rehabilitation and ended up with supermax. We tried to be humane and ended up with more prisoners than Stalin had at the height of the Soviet Gulag. Somewhere in the process, we lost the concept of justice and punishment in a free society.

Today, the prison-industrial complex has become little more than a massive government-run make-work program that profits from human bondage. To oversimplify — just a bit — we pay poor, unemployed rural whites to guard poor, unemployed urban blacks.

Of course some people are simply too dangerous to release — pedophiles, terrorists and the truly psychopathic, for instance. But they’re relatively few in number. And we keep these people behind bars because we’re afraid of them.

As to the other 2 million common criminals, the 2 million more than we had in 1970, we can’t and won’t keep them locked up forever. Ninety-five percent of prisoners are eventually released. The question is not if but when and how.

Incarceration not only fails to deter crime but in many ways can increase it. For crime driven by economic demand, such as drug dealing, arresting one seller creates a job opening for others, who might fight over the vacant position.

Incarceration destroys families and jobs, exactly what people need to have in order to stay away from crime. Incarcerated criminals are more likely to reoffend than similar people given alternative sentences. To break the cycle of crime, people need help. And they would need less help if they were never incarcerated in the first place.

He forgets to mention that prisons can become schools of crime in which criminals are able to learn new techniques from each other.

Is Peter Moskos right? Should we reintroduce flogging? I don’t really know. I don’t think the lash will deter many potential criminals though. I could be wrong, but I get the impression that the reason many criminals are criminals is that they exhibit poor impulse control and do not think through the consequences of their actions.