By Allyn Horne
The firestorm around Barack Obama’s refusal to grant Benjamin Netanyahu a meeting during his U.S. visit has consumed much ink, and even more pixels, in print and social media. I decided to step back and share my thinking on how this issue should really be framed.
Why? What makes this, ahem, monumental, diplomatic faux pas so worthy of breathless panting and shrieking? Because it destabilizes relations with our most cherished ally? Because it is utterly incommodious to Israel’s attempts to contain Iran’s escalating nuclear program?
All of these things may be true, and are, no doubt, regrettable —yet they also fundamentally miss the bigger picture.
I, for one, want to honor President Obama’s unctuous request that we hold him accountable for his performance in office. An appropriate place to start is by measuring his efficacy in his primary constitutional role: as the executive of the federal government. In his 1966 opus, aptly titled The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker established a first principle for evaluating leaders in all contexts: “executives must carefully choose how to spend, and not to spend, their time.” By wisely apportioning time, the thinking goes, a leader establishes priorities, and advances his or her organization toward the achievement of goals.
It is in this context that we should seek to understand the president’s decision to decline Netanyahu’s meeting request. As the executive of the US federal government, the president determined that expending effort on his re-election campaign is more urgent – in fact, advances the goals of the United States—more surely than does meeting a foreign head of state.
Linger on that thought for just a moment.
And after you do, consider for another moment how President Obama has chosen to spend his time making progress against three of his biggest campaign priorities of 2008 – the economy, the environment, American prestige and financial stability. Three exhibits for review:
- Possessed by an obsession with creating a historically arresting legacy , President Obama, ever the unfailing narcissist, decided in September 2009 to prioritize the Affordable Care Act over the crisis of chronic unemployment. To the exclusion of other domestic policy initiatives, Obama aggressively pursued passage of ACA — indirect defiance of the public will, which, by a 42%-18% margin one month later , clearly signaled a mandate to direct energies toward improvements in the sinking employment landscape. And what did we get for his labors of love? On the day that President Obama formally launched his health care initiative, labor rate participation rates (65.1%) were at their lowest since April 1986. Three years later, the labor participation rate has declined to 63.5% — representing a slide back to October 1981 levels. And, by the way, the mere mortals amongst us won’t “get to find out”, as Nancy Pelosi suggested, what benefits might accrue from ACA for at least another two years.
- Judging by his 2008 laundry list of pro-environment campaign promises , the Obama presidency – in time, energy, and priorities – might have been an abundance of riches for environmentalist voters. By April 2010, however, they learned that this was not to be. As an explosion occured on Transocean’s Deepwater oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico , the White House relied on David Axelrod and Janet Napolitano to articulate the administration’s new policy on offshore drilling and to announce the federal investigation. The president did, however, manage to saunter back to Chicago for yet another vacation before bothering to address the American people on the tragedy. Despite maundering blusters about conferences with experts who would help him discover “whose ass to kick,” topped off by a series of swell photo opportunities in the Gulf, Obama ducked all opportunities to meet directly with BP executives. Two years — and millions of gallons of oil later — petroleum continues gushing in the gulf – spoiling even more livelihoods (and marine life), most recently evidenced in the blackening of Louisiana’s coastline by Hurricane Isaac. In a final assault on the environment, Obama, while on vacation, decreed the relaxation of smog emissions controls to what his own EPA director decried as “legally indefensible” levels.
- Having (rightly) excoriated the national debt as a blight on American prestige and financial solvency, you might have imagined Obama assuming a commanding role in budget debates. To actively participate in setting the agenda, however, would require devoting sufficient energy to fashioning and selling credible budgets. Budgets that, unlike Obama’s slapdash concoctions, might manage to avoid two consecutive years of unanimous rejection by the U.S. House and Senate . Of course, who has time for that when, as Obama deemed necessary, you have to conduct 160 fundraisers for your re-election campaign – more than double the number conducted by his predecessor at the same stage of the 2004 election cycle ? After all, we can always worry about American prestige and the debt if we move forward in a second term!
By now, there should be no confusion: a yawning chasm emerges between Obama’s articulated priorities and his actual allocation of time, calories, and brainpower. When faced with tradeoffs, personal whim and political interests always win in Obama’s calculus. So, despite the potentially stark consequences of declining Netanyahu’s meeting request, Obama’s decision should come as absolutely no surprise – this episode is simply part of a broader trendline, characterized by consistently misguided (and not a little narcissistic) decisions about where to focus White House time and resources.
The real tragedy, the failure that will “drive [Obama] to [his] knees,” is neither the peril presented by this diplomatic blunder, nor any of the above events, in isolation. In the judgment of history — and quite possibly, the voters– the real tragedy will be the fact that in wasting his own time as the nation’s chief executive, Obama has wasted America’s time. The messiah of 2008 has become the Sleeping Beauty of the Oval Office — proffering nothing but rhetoric of immeasurable altitude, while displaying self-absorbed neglect of his obligations to the American people and his office. The product of such an enormous opportunity cost is clear: the inexorable decline affected by a president lacking the judgment, interest, or skills to function as an executive. (We can’t say we weren’t warned – Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and even Sarah Palin sounded these alarms.) Obama’s dependable failure in agenda-setting and execution leaves the U.S. susceptible to what Shakespeare’s “whirligig of time…bringing in its revenges.”
For the U.S., the revenges of time are already devastating, with the promise of even darker storm clouds on the horizon. Just ask the millions submerged in hysteresis, the millions in the Gulf region with tattered livelihoods, or the millions here at home whose collective sense of security has been insistently rattled through credit downgrades, fiscal cliffs, and turmoil abroad. We have only ourselves to blame if we do not honor the president’s request that he be held accountable.