George F. Will: Are we witnessing how a presidency unravels?
WASHINGTON — For concision and precision in describing Barack Obama's suddenly ambivalent relationship with his singular — actually, his single — achievement, the laurels go to Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La. After Obama's semi-demi-apology for millions of canceled insurance policies — an intended and predictable consequence of his crusade to liberate Americans from their childish choices of "substandard" policies sold by "bad apple" insurers — Scalise said:
"Obama is like someone who burns down your house. Then shows up with an empty water bucket. Then lectures you about how defective the house was."
What is now inexplicably called Obama's "fix" for the chaos he has created is surreal. He gives you permission to reoccupy your house — if you can get someone to rebuild it — but for only another year.
At least he has banished boredom from millions of lives. Although probably not from his.
The place to begin understanding the unraveling of his presidency is page 274 of "The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama." The author, David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, quotes Valerie Jarrett, perhaps Obama's closest and longest-serving adviser, on her hero's amazingness:
"He knows exactly how smart he is. ... I think that he has never really been challenged intellectually. ... He's been bored to death his whole life. He's just too talented to do what ordinary people do. He would never be satisfied with what ordinary people do."
Leave aside the question of whether someone so smitten can be in any meaningful sense an adviser — about what can such a paragon as Obama need advice? (Although he did recently say, "What we're also discovering is that insurance is complicated to buy." Just to buy.) It is, however, fair to note that what ordinary people ordinarily do is their jobs, competently. Obama's inability to be satisfied with anything so banal has plunged him into Jimmy Carter territory.
Carter's presidency crumbled when people decided they still liked his character but had no confidence in his competence. Obamacare's misadventures, and Obama's response to them, have caused people to doubt both his character and his competence.
The White House, disoriented by adoration — including the self-adoration — of its principal occupant, sits in a city that has become addicted to its own adrenaline. It is in a perpetual swivel stoked by media for which every inter-institutional dust-up is a crisis.
This year began with the "fiscal cliff" crisis. (You may have forgotten, there having been so many supposedly epochal events to keep track of: All the Bush tax cuts were set to expire; the "crisis" ended when only those cuts for the wealthy were allowed to lapse.)
Then came spring and the "sequester crisis," meaning discretionary spending "slashed" by "draconian" cuts of ... 2.3 percent. Autumn brought the crisis of the shutdown of (part of) the government, and the crisis surrounding the inevitable raising of the debt ceiling. The ostensible crisis was that the Obama administration might choose to default on the nation's debt even though government revenues were 10 times larger than required to service the debt.
Good grief. The 1854 passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act was a crisis. As was the 1857 Dred Scott decision, the Great Depression and Pearl Harbor. But as for 2013's blizzard of supposed crises: Arguments between the houses of Congress, or between the executive and legislative branches, about money should not be called crises; they should be called politics. The separation of powers that is the essence of the constitutional system assumes rivalrous institutions. When, however, the conflict is not about money but about the nation's constitutional architecture, perhaps the language of crisis is apposite.
The New York Times reports that last March Henry Chao of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which superintended creation of the HealthCare.gov website, told a conference that he had worries: "Let's just make sure it's not a third-world experience." When such an embarrassing experience occurred, Obama responded like a ruler of a banana republic unfettered by constitutionalism and the rule of law. Although no president has even a line-item veto power (which 44 governors have), this president asserts the power to revise the language of laws by "enforcement discretion," and suggests no limiting principle.
But even this is a crisis only if Congress makes it so by supine acquiescence. Congressional Democrats are White House poodles. They also are progressives and therefore disposed to favor unfettered executive power. Republicans are supposed to be different.
George Will's email address is email@example.com.