JONATHAN CHAIT JUNE 3, 2010
My new TRB column is out, subscription-only, about the cult of the presidency and the Deepwater Horizon spill. The intro:
Two years ago, the Cato Institute’s Gene Healy wrote an insightful essay in Reason titled, “The Cult of the Presidency.” Healy argued that the office of the president had assumed an almost supernatural place in American life. Not only had presidents assumed powers far beyond those originally intended—though I’d take exception to Healy’s shrunken, nineteenth-century conception of the office’s proper role—but the broader culture had also assigned it powers that go beyond the realm of politics itself. “The chief executive of the United States is no longer a mere constitutional officer charged with faithful execution of the laws,” wrote Healy. “He is a soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns, and spiritual malaise.”
Healy could well have been writing about the curious reaction to President Obama’s handling of the BP oil leak. Last week, Obama held a press conference putatively dedicated to explaining the state of the disaster and the government’s response. The actual purpose of the event, as both the questioners and the questionee understood, was for Obama to perform his talismanic role.
Indeed, the assembled media judged the president’s performance almost entirely in emotional terms. The initial reviews found him wanting. New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny concluded, “[I]t remains an open question whether the measured tone that has become the soundtrack of Mr. Obama’s presidency—a detached, calm, observational pitch—served to drive the point home that he is sufficiently enraged by the fury in the Gulf Coast.” Maureen Dowd lambastes the president for having “willfully and inexplicably resisted fulfilling a signal part of his job: being a prism in moments of fear and pride, reflecting what Americans feel so they know he gets it.”
Meanwhile, Leon Wieseltier has a terrific column about the Gaza flotilla fiasco. It's not from the print magazine, and thus is available to even the cheapest and laziest among you. (Not that I'm judging.) Here's a bit:
When, in the modern era, the Zionists concluded, quite correctly, that the Jews must extract themselves from anti-Semitic societies and establish a society of their own, a sovereign one, in the land of Israel, it was in part to “normalize” them by making them “reckoned among the nations,” and therefore like other nations. Zionism was a reversal of Balaam’s phony blessing. The state was not supposed to be a bunker, even if it had enemies. But Netanyahu is a creature of the bunker. He talks about peace, but not like a man who hungers for it. He takes no steps toward peace except as the consequence of a crisis—a crisis not with the Palestinians but with the Americans. He liturgically intones his warnings, some of them true, about the external dangers facing Israel, and mistakes brutishness for toughness, and offers nothing. He is a gray, muddling, reactive figure. His preferred strategy for his country is: one quiet week after another unto eternity. His problem is that there are not many quiet weeks.