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President Obama hits the links, vacation critics are silent. What happened?

President Obama takes a vacation but this time almost no one is criticizing his plans. That's a sure sign that he's a lame-duck president. 

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    President Obama tees off while golfing Wednesday at Farm Neck Golf Club, in Oak Bluffs, Mass., on the island of Martha's Vineyard.
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There are a variety of different political stories that caught my eye these last few days. Since I can’t tackle them all in the depth they deserve – at least not in a timely fashion – I thought I’d briefly comment on some of the most important. Here, in no particular order, are my thoughts about:

The Donald’s debate performance. In the media’s focus on reporting how Trump’s polling support is holding steady in the aftermath of the Fox-hosted political debate, perhaps the most important takeaway from that event has been underplayed. Since the debate, Trump has been making the media rounds, using a series of one-on-one interviews and policy pronouncements to showcase his policy credentials. Yes, his policies still contain their share of bombast and pleasing sound bites, but they are also more fleshed out than Trump’s previous pronouncements, which were typically all sizzle and no steak. Trump’s effort to fill in some of the details of his policy views, I suspect, is prompted by his realization that when standing on the debate stage next to his Republican competitors, the sound-bite pronouncements that work so well in staged settings orchestrated by his campaign to attract media coverage – “I will build a yuuuge wall, paid for by Mexico!” –  are much less effective in debates when compared to the more detailed policy pronouncements put forth by his rivals. Contrary to the media stereotype, Trump is a smart man (albeit one prone to bluster). He surely realizes that, at this point, his polling – with about a quarter of likely Republican voters supporting him nationally – is at best in Howard Dean territory, and that as the Republican field begins to get pared down, it is quite possible Republican support will coalesce around one of his rivals, such as Bush or Rubio. In short, the Donald is making a concerted effort to step up his game. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the next debate.

The Biden one-term pledge. Reportedly Vice President Joe Biden will pledge, if he decides to run for president in 2016, that if elected he will only serve one term as president. He’s not alone. Lawrence Lessig, who is running a quixotic campaign for the Democratic nomination, has promised to do Biden one better – he will resign the presidency if he gets his policy initiative dealing with campaign finance reform passed. In an earlier post, I discussed the pros and cons of term limits and why I think limiting presidents to one term (formally or informally) is a very bad idea (although I don’t oppose term limits after two terms, at least not in principle), but candidates continue to trot this idea out, presumably because it gives them an aura of being above politics; they are concerned only with the public interest, and not with doing what will ensure their reelection. It’s worth remembering that the Framers spent considerable time debating this idea, part of a larger debate on how to choose the president, only to reject it in favor of unlimited terms. That choice, of course, has since been superseded by the 22nd Amendment. I happen to think there’s some virtue in making presidents remain sensitive to the political implications of their decisions, which is what occurs when presidents are free to seek a second term in office. In my view, it helps prevents the type of fiascos that I discuss in my previous post that have regularly afflicted recent presidents’ second terms. In short, it is probably a helpful check on presidential actions to make them consider how the public might react to what they are proposing to do.

Carly Fiorina has been discovered – and now she undergoes scrutiny. I’ve referenced the Sides/Vavreck argument, coming out of their wonderful study of the 2012 presidential campaign, that relatively unknown presidential candidates who burst onto the scene often undergo a process of “discovery, scrutiny and decline." This pattern accurately describes the candidacies of Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry and even Newt Gingrich (twice!) in 2012. So far, however, The Donald seems to be avoiding this pattern – his polling support has survived the extended scrutiny for a longer period than did any of the quartet from 2012. Now it’s Carly Fiorina’s turn. In light of her widely praised performance in the “happy hour” version of the Fox debate, she instantly became the darling of the pundits. But with that favorable coverage, she has also begun to receive more scrutiny, particularly of her tumultuous tenure as CEO at Hewlett Packard. Of course, this scrutiny doesn’t come only from the media – rivals are only too happy to chime in. In this vein, The Donald recently said this about Fiorina in an interview: “She’s a very nice woman, she got fired, she did a terrible job at Hewlett-Packard, she lost in a landslide – other than that, she’s a very nice woman.”

Did you know the Obamas are on vacation? If one needs any more proof that Obama is a lame-duck president, it is this: Almost no one is criticizing his vacation plans. The most critical media coverage I’ve heard centers on his choice of reading material while spending some down time at Martha’s Vineyard. Several years back I wrote this post analyzing why presidents continue to take vacations, and why they are constantly belittled for doing so. I noted that the president’s political opponents typically treat a vacationing president, no matter which party he represents, as the modern equivalent of Nero fiddling while Rome burns. For example, in a not atypical review, one critic wrote this about the Obama’s 2011 vacation on the Island: “Which begs the question – why did the president go ahead with his vacation despite the worst approval ratings of his presidency, plunging stock markets, falling consumer confidence, and overwhelming public disillusion with his handling of the economy? I think the answer lies in Obama’s professorial-style arrogance, and a condescending approach towards ordinary Americans.” Yikes! Pardon me for wanting to soak up some rays! I concluded my post by advising the president to get some rest and relaxation, but to avoid the nude beaches. (Denizens of Martha’s Vineyard will confirm that some of the best beaches there are clothing optional.) This time around, however, and in contrast to previous years, criticism of the president’s vacation plans seems largely muted, which I can only believe reflects a more general sense that his presidency is nearing its end. For what it’s worth, I think it’s nice that the president and his family can finally enjoy a relaxing (the term is relative, of course, for a sitting president) two weeks in a picturesque island setting.

Nonetheless, I’d still be cautious about the whole nude beach thing. 

Matthew Dickinson publishes his Presidential Power blog at http://sites.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower/.

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