Fouad Ajami: Critical Of The Untested Redeemer That Became Barack Obama

There were two ‘wisemen’ who had the ear of both President Bush and Vice President Cheney immediately after September 11 and during crunch time in Iraq 2006.  They were Professor Emeritus Bernard Lewis from Princeton University and Dr. Fouad Ajami who is Chair at The John’s Hopkins University for International Studies.  Dr. Ajami is known for his eloquent lyrical prose that is most unbecoming an academic, most especially from one born and raised in Lebanon.

Reagan once remarked that to truly understand America one had to witness it from the perspective of an immigrant, for it is only they who truly hold the promise of American Life.  Ajami’s grasp of that Promise was on full display today (Wednesday, August 11, 2010) as he wrote about a deeply flawed manchild who is lost amiss the spectacle of becoming President.  Ajami lovingly engages other Presidents who drew on vast personal reserves informed from American History; our exceptionalism to manage the enduring conflict, grounded in the very heart of man, between liberty and authority.  American institutions were capable of balancing those two passions by grounding both within natural law and separate, equal, limited, enumerated Federal power.  That’s why we’re exceptional!  It remains so today.  But those ideals never informed the Obama Presidency, nor do they assert themselves now as he drifts toward marking time.

Ajami’s article titled ‘The Obsolescence Of Barack Obama” must be quarried to recognize just how close the American polity is dominated by the tempers and passions of adolescence in its embrace of a charismatic Senator from Illinois, named Barack Obama.

Any reading from Robert Cairo’s majestic (unfinished) trilogy of the Johnson Administration (although Doris Kearns Goodwin’s  “Lyndon Johnson:  The American Dream” is stunning) reveals a man totally at odds with himself, a man not at home in his own skin.  An incomplete person, consumed and paralyzed that he was not Jack Kennedy.  A man of  trifle mercurial temperament, quick to measure character for dominant vulgar personal and political means.  Yet imprisoned just the same.  These are traits that are unbecoming a Statesman as Nixon so deftly learned.  Johnson had no emotional link with the American people, and neither does Obama.  Political acumen would require such a trait, but the American polity has changed in how it vets both craft and men who aspire to chair political statecraft.  That change is not permanent.  It reveals a distraught rootless proletarian mindset un-serious as it is passionate.  Earnest and wrong just the same.

Lyndon Johnson escalated a war that forced his own abdication.  For their is a ruthlessness to those who chair authority in wielding statecraft.  The sword of Damocles can destroy those beholden to its logic.  Their are biblical overtones here worth discerning, especially the limits of passion as political craft.  Even Machiavelli knew the scales from which political wisdom rests.  In Barack Obama we are witnessing the limits of CHARISMA.

Max Weber and women the world over have forever known the attractiveness of charisma.  We are discovering the consequences of charisma divorced from the hardened realities of both life and politics itself.  It is CHARACTER, not charisma that dominates the quality of leadership.

For Ajami, the summer of 2010 is a time of puzzlement for this President.  Harkening to the personal trials of both Johnson, Reagan and Clinton, all three Presidents were able to survive from political overreach.  Obama seems destined to remain personally paralyzed from the public’s open rebellion against his socialist Keynesian agenda that has clearly failed.

Obama has misread the mandate to govern.  For Ajami, ‘the panic that propelled him into  the Presidency as passed over.  The Obama strategy has lost the consent of the governed.’  Very few wisemen or pundits ever wrote such deadpan prophecy since Truman.  Yet Ajami maintained his political acumen in finding that ‘He pronounced on the American condition with stark, unalloyed confidence. He had little if any regard for precedents. He could be forgiven the thought that America’s faith in economic freedom had given way and that he had the popular writ to move the nation toward a super-regulated command economy. An “economic emergency” was upon us, and this would be the New New Deal.  There was no hesitation in the monumental changes Mr. Obama had in mind. The logic was Jacobin, the authority deriving from a perceived mandate to recast time-honored practices. It was veritably rule by emergency decrees. If public opinion displayed no enthusiasm for the overhaul of the nation’s health-care system, the administration would push on. The public would adjust in due time.”

Ajami reveals that Obama’s informing political compass has failed.  Still, Ajami cautioned that “it was canonical to this administration and its functionaries that they were handed a broken nation, that it was theirs to repair, that it was theirs to tax and reshape to their preferences. Yet there was, in 1980, after another landmark election, a leader who had stepped forth in a time of “malaise” at home and weakness abroad: Ronald Reagan. His program was different from Mr. Obama’s. His faith in the country was boundless. What he sought was to restore the nation’s faith in itself, in its political and economic vitality.  Big as Reagan’s mandate was, in two elections, the man was never bigger than his country. There was never narcissism or a bloated sense of personal destiny in him. He gloried in the country, and drew sustenance from its heroic deeds and its capacity for recovery. No political class rode with him to power anxious to lay its hands on the nation’s treasure, eager to supplant the forces of the market with its own economic preferences.

To be sure, Reagan faltered midway through his second term—the arms-for-hostages trade, the Iran-Contra affair, nearly wrecked his presidency. But he recovered, the nation rallied around him and carried him across the finish line, his bond with the electorate deep and true. He had two years left of his stewardship, and his political recovery was so miraculous that he, and his first mate, Secretary of State George P. Shultz, would seal the nation’s victory in the Cold War.

There is little evidence that the Obama presidency could yet find new vindication, another lease on life. Mr. Obama will mark time, but henceforth he will not define the national agenda. He will not be the repository of its hopes and sentiments. The ambition that his would be a “transformational” presidency—he rightly described Reagan’s stewardship in these terms—is for naught.”

Ajami has written Obama’s epitaph long into his second year in office.  The political reality grounding the validity of these observations was unthinkable one year ago.

Max Weber’s insights into the indeterminate axis that provides the need for and aim of charisma has always been insightful in its open ended posture.  Toynbee spoke of the theological undercurrent grounding the failure of civilizations to grow in seeking a savior.  Has our polity reached that point?  Has liberalism?

The stark reality is that there remains an unforgiving political calculus, a realism upon which America now finds itself confronting in Central Asia, the Near East, Mexico and domestically, which calls for CHARACTER shaped in the vale of failure, disappointment and rectitude, qualities that never found a home in this President.

How else to put it?  The Executive is not the place for on the job training.

About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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