Politics

When Does Obama Have Time To Think?

Debate-o-Matic: Does the president have too much on his plate?

US President Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
President Barack Obama

To help you keep up with the debates in and about Washington, Slate offers this guide to the issues of the week. Here are a few arguments on a few key topics.

Barack Obama

He’s doing too much: Every day there’s a different message from the president. This week, he talked about stem cells, education, women, the stimulus, and earmark reform. He’s taking on the bank crisis, the foreclosure mess, the health care system, and the energy industry and launching a budget that fundamentally transforms the role of government. He probably installed the girls’ new swing set, too. Perhaps the president has a great staff that can keep him from getting overloaded, but to the country he looks like a flibbertigibbet, doing everything and mastering nothing. It’s not just his political opponents and hacks who are making this argument. His supporter Warren Buffett called for more focus, as did former Intel CEO Andy Grove.

He’s doing just fine: The public isn’t as frantic as the elites are. It supports the president and his policies. Buffett and Grove should know that the investments Obama is making in health care and energy represent the kind of long-term thinking that they would normally praise. To ignore those issues would be in keeping with the quick-fix, ignore-the-fundamentals mindset that has ruled the market and Washington for too long and in fact helped get us into this mess.

Charles Freeman

He was an ideological extremist:Freeman’s task as head of the National Intelligence Council would have been to frame the most sensitive intelligence for the president. That requires out-of-the-box thinking that is also unbiased. Freeman was too pro-Saudi Arabia and too anti-Israel to fit that job description. He wasn’t simply questioning whether U.S. foreign policy was too tilted toward Israel, but, as Jeffrey Goldberg pointed out, Freeman went out of his way to distort Israel’s history and views with such broad and analytically blind statements as, “Demonstrably, Israel excels at war; sadly, it has shown no talent for peace.”More broadly, a foreign policy realist who can argue Chinese officials should have cracked down more quickly in Tiananmen Square is, as Jon Chait argued, too radical a voice to have a role in U.S. policy.

He was railroaded by the Israel lobby: Freeman was hounded out of the post because, as Andrew Sullivan put it, he dared question whether Israel was, in some measure, to blame for its problems. To say that his views on Israel were not at the heart of the debate is silly. The whole debate was started by Steve Rosen, formerly of American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Groupthink can distort the policymaking process in a presidential administration, so it’s useful to have people who challenge conventional wisdom the way Freeman did. As David Rothkopf points out, Freeman’s fate signals a larger problem: “Financial trivia, minutiae from people’s personal lives and political litmus tests have grown in importance while character, experience, intelligence, creativity and wisdom have fallen by the wayside.”

Aren’t bloggers great? What Mickey Kaus said.

Michael Steele

Nice guy, but he should have his own talk show, not the GOP: Michael Steele was picked (barely; it was the sixth ballot) as chairman because he would bring a new spirit to the Republican Party, modernize it, and communicate a new vision in a creative way. He’s been a communications disaster, spending most of his time taking his foot out of his mouth. (We could have predicted this.) When he issued an e-mail to supporters this week titled “It’s Time To Set the Record Straight,” it wasn’t clear whether he was addressing one of his latest gaffes or talking about the Democrats. (It was the latter.)

Don’t bury him yet: Howard Dean was considered a wild card at first, too, but now he’s considered a genius. It takes time to rebuild a party, and if Republicans hound their African-American chairman out of his position, then the party’s national reputation will be damaged even further.