Two pieces of evidence do not a trend make, but when we’re talking about the Presidency of the United States, whose occupants usually choose their words with the greatest care even when they’re not as eloquent as Barack Obama, chances are something noteworthy is going on. So it’s more than a little troubling that the president has twice this month taken to defending a major, highly debatable policy with an argument that adds up to little more an unusually non-credible version of “Trust me.”
Not that trust doesn’t have its place in politics, but in the two cases I’m thinking of, Mr. Obama’s chops simply aren’t that impressive. His latest use of this tack concerns the Iran nuclear weapons deal. In an interview last week with Atlantic correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg, the president responded to critics of his strategy to deny Tehran The Bomb by declaring, “Look, 20 years from now, I’m still going to be around, God willing. If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it’s my name on this. I think it’s fair to say that in addition to our profound national-security interests, I have a personal interest in locking this down.”
You don’t need to be an Obama-hater to eye-roll this claim of ownership. After all, it’s not as if Mr. Obama entered office with immense foreign policy street cred – or with much foreign policy experience at all. And with a handful of exceptions like Leon Panetta (his former intelligence and Pentagon chief) and Robert M. Gates (who ran the Pentagon), his foreign policy advisors could fairly be dismissed as a “Team of Lightweights” if they were the subject of a Doris Kearns Goodwin history. Further, given the comfy retirements of recent masters of U.S. policy disaster ranging from former Fed chair Alan Greenspan to former Vice President Dick Cheney, it’s a safe bet that not only will the president live long and prosper in retirement whatever happens in the Middle East. He’ll also attract a legion of apologists to plead his case.
Mr. Obama has a stronger claim to credibility when he tries to reassure progressives that his trade agenda won’t harm working Americans or social, environmental, financial, and other regulations by citing his administration’s record – and his prior public service. Remarks like the following ring true:
“If there was a trade agreement that undercut working families, I wouldn’t sign it. The Chamber of Commerce didn’t elect me twice — working folks did. I ran for office in the first place to expand the all-American idea of opportunity — no matter where you come from, what you look like, how you started out, who you love, you can make it if you try here in America.
“I don’t forget where I came from. I don’t forget how I started. I moved to Chicago in my early 20s with barely anything except a desire to make a difference. I wanted to make sure my life attached itself to giving people a chance at opportunity — helping kids get a great education, helping parents who live in poverty get decent jobs that let them raise a family, help folks who work hard all day get health insurance so they don’t have to go to the emergency room when they get sick. So I became an organizer….”
At the same time, precisely this type of combination of policies has “made sense” to broad swathes of American liberalism for literally decades. In fact, a hallmark of this movement during the early post-World War II decades (unions excepted of course) was (a) strong backing for trade liberalization and expansion; (b) equally strong backing for a greatly expanded role for government in propping up incomes and regulating business; and (c) robust (and needed) infrastructure building. Moreover, into the 21st century, many Democrats, especially of the Clinton-ian persuasion, have felt completely confident that whatever harm is done to working class Americans by trade liberalization can be offset by better schools, yet more infrastructure building and other public investments and, increasingly, more aggressive income support along the lines of higher government-mandated minimum wages and more generous, family-oriented benefits.
Nonetheless, it’s also eminently arguable that precisely this combination of policies – and its belief that ever more public sector programs and requirements can indefinitely substitute for the loss of income-earning opportunities generated by market forces – ultimately keeps draining the productive life from the U.S. economy and hooking it on debt-fueled growth.
So far, though, a critical mass of Democrats so far is refusing to trust the president on trade issues – which is why it’s in such deep trouble in the House of Representatives, where the decisive vote on Mr. Obama’s trade agenda will be cast. And trust in the Obama Iran policies is hardly universal in his own party as well. Which suggests, encouragingly, that Americans are starting to demand that their leaders earn their trust – and that such healthy skepticism might even be applied to the upcoming presidential election.