To any politician—especially a president—the most damaging criticism, at least apart from a seamy ethical problem, is incompetence. People just like to think those they elect are capable of getting the job done, and if they cannot, they’re unlikely to be rehired.
Maybe even ethics takes second place. I recall Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards’s famous remark that he could get caught in bed with a live boy or a dead girl and still get reelected. Why? Because Louisianans thought that as crooked as the governor was—and he did eventually go to jail—at least he could get the people’s business done. Bill Clinton, involved in one scandal after another, left office with his approval ratings in the stratosphere. People may not have liked what he did, but incompetence was rarely at the top of the complaint list. But look at poor old George W. Bush. His scandal-free tenure was plagued by a sense of incompetence, from Katrina to the inability to end the Iraq war to the recession—none of which were really his fault, but he sure paid the price.
Barack Obama was elected on the basis of his personal attraction, his ability to give a convincing speech, and by persuading voters that he was going to be, somehow, different. People continue to tell the pollsters they want him to succeed and they continue to like his persona—after all, that’s what they bought. Maybe the attitude is a bit like that of the fellow who buys an expensive new car and soon realizes he doesn’t like it as much as he thought he would. But he’s not about to admit that to his friends, not after telling them how much he loved it.
Now comes a headline, “Worries grow that Barack Obama & Co. have a competence problem,” and one has to wonder if what most on the right have suspected all along may be seeping through the media fog surrounding the president. It is no secret that the stakes for Obama are indeed high, and the problems he faces acute. Americans want these problems—economic problems—solved. And most, at least those who have been around a while, know from experience that when economic problems arise, they can be solved.
As we approach the end of the proverbial first 100 days we don’t have to look far to find lots of incompetence. Most appointive positions in the administration remain unfilled, and many nominees have withdrawn because of ethical and tax problems. We find inconsistent policies and answers on topic after topic. We find an economy that has not responded to the most massive stimulus plan in history, and we find Obamaites desperately trying to cover their hineys for any involvement in, among others, the AIG bonus scandal, making themselves and the administration look more amateurish with each changing answer. And despite Obama’s high approval ratings, pollsters are learning that a majority of Americans want less government and fewer services by a larger margin than any time since 2003. A startling 82 percent of Americans told the Gallup poll in late March that they were worried about growing deficits, and nearly as many were worried about the rapid growth of government.
But not only are we getting bigger and bigger government. We are faced with a smug know-it-all who one would think is the world’s leading expert on everything from health care to the financial sector to running General Motors to telling the rest of the world how to function. As convincing as he may sound, he plays a dangerous game. When anything on his list starts going haywire—which no doubt it will—voters will start to question his competence.
We feature this month an enlightening piece on the president’s most visible, and arguably most incompetent, cabinet member—the one whose advice to the president has helped to vaporize the accumulated wealth of the United States (not to mention yours, dear reader), the one who has set the stage for an ongoing economic meltdown, and the one who has been described as the worst treasury secretary in history. It may be too early to call him incompetent— maybe too clever by half would be more accurate. But the too-clever-by-half folks have a way of getting burned in the end. The president may not need much help establishing his own incompetence, but my guess is that history will tell us he got plenty from Mr. Geithner.
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