Wednesday, April 25 , 2018, 7:17 pm | Fair 59º


Mark Shields: Big Crises Do Not Guarantee Big Leaders

The disastrous Gulf oil spill isn't the only challenge facing President Obama

The American national crisis emerges suddenly. The crisis brings doubt and anxiety among the people who instinctively turn to the president, who in turn is expected quickly to reflect, to decide and to act.

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

But crises are no predictor of presidential greatness: James Buchanan, facing the secession of seven Southern states, vacillated — and history did not hesitate to deem him a mediocre chief executive. Buchanan’s successor, the modest Abraham Lincoln, acted boldly, led the nation into war and preserved the United States.

Admiral W.F. “Bull” Halsey, the legendary World War II commander of the South Pacific area, once observed: “There are no great men. Just great challenges that ordinary men are forced by circumstances to meet.”

Confronting unending Cold War challenges and crises, Harry Truman, a proud alumnus of the notorious Pendergast political machine of Kansas City, responded so resolutely and creatively that he earned ranking among the great presidents.

During his less than 17 months in office, President Barack Obama has not wanted for crises. But the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico well, which blew up 5,000 feet underwater, qualifies as both a national crisis and a presidential crisis.

Presidential blunders are quickly forgotten if — and only if — citizens can see the president, with confidence and firmness of purpose, effectively leading to the successful resolution of those crises.

Politically speaking, in a national crisis, there is no Opposition Party with whom an unsuccessful president can share the blame he might endure. This is not like any legislative battle between the White House and Congress. There is no competing option to a president’s plan of action, and there is only one grade given by the voters — and that is to the president.

For Democrats, the Gulf oil disaster prevents the discussion of any other public issue. This crisis takes the oxygen out of the room. Any attempt in this climate by Democrats to emphasize their commitment to “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs” is doomed.

In addition to confidence, forcefulness and sound judgment, the U.S. president in crisis is expected to be the comforter in chief. In their Paradoxes of the Presidency, Thomas Cronin and Michael Genovese call this role the “national chaplain.” President Ronald Reagan fulfilled this duty of the office so completely at the time of the Challenger tragedy.

Complicating the problems for Obama and his Democratic Party is that deep-sea camera showing around-the-clock live video evidence of the oil gushing relentlessly from the broken well. Congressional Democrats who had pressured BP, the oil company, to make the camera publicly available may now regret their success.

As of this writing, the images indicate that all public and private efforts have failed. Inevitably, this contributes to the widespread perception that government is not working and does not work.

Respected Democratic pollster Fred Yang reports that the voters’ mood has moved beyond anger: “Their anger has given way to despair.” Yang tells of a recent Indianapolis focus group where blue-collar men were complaining about the hyper-politics of Washington, where they saw a Democratic team and a Republican team whose respective members were only interested in scoring points for their side and not working cooperatively. Then, one focus group participant summed up the collective feelings: “There is really only one team in Washington. It’s Them!”

It is clear. The disaster in the Gulf is not the only national crisis Obama is confronting.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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