POTUS and the Hard Path

by Joshua H. Liberatore

In full recognition of the heaping pile of crises or near-crises on his plate, POTUS has been articulating his philosophy of necessary strife with great clarity of late. In his remarks to employees of the Central Intelligence Agency, where rowdy applause and more than a few “Amens” from the audience presented a somewhat jarring juxtaposition to the Hollywood iconography replete with nerdy analysts and Jack Bauer toughians, POTUS explained that it’s hard, but essential, to keep the balance between ideals and methodologies, especially in these dangerous times:

I understand that it’s hard when you are asked to protect the American people against people who have no scruples and would willingly and gladly kill innocents. Al Qaida is not constrained by a constitution. Many of our adversaries are not constrained by a belief in freedom of speech or representation in court or rule of law. So I’m sure that sometimes it seems as if that means we’re operating with one hand tied behind our back or that those who would argue for a higher standard are naive. I understand that. You know, I watch the cable shows once in a while. (April 20, 2009)

I’d imagine that watching “the cable shows” gives POTUS the feeling of “operating with one had tied behind [his] back,” unable to rebut properly, unwilling to ignore them completely. Even NPR’s “human interest” stories give me that feeling sometimes. But our subject is the maintenance of security amid scruples.

What makes the United States special, and what makes you special, is precisely the fact that we are willing to uphold our values and our ideals even when it’s hard, not just when it’s easy, even when we are afraid and under threat, not just when it’s expedient to do so. That’s what makes us different. So, yes, you’ve got a harder job, and so do I. And that’s okay, because that’s why we can take such extraordinary pride in being Americans. And over the long term, that is why I believe we will defeat our enemies, because we’re on the better side of history. (April 20, 2009)

Given that our statistical record of killing innocent civilians on two fronts is actually far worse than that of the vaguely-defined Enemy, as we are weekly reminded, I’m not sure POTUS’s confidence about America, much less the CIA, being “on the better side of history” is widely shared, even among those who voted for him. But he’s certainly got a point that it is harder to transform, as if by magic, the traditional rage felt in corners of the world with our collective boot on their neck, all the while playing by the rules, at least most of them. Perchance POTUS recognizes that not playing by the rules for so long has only exacerbated or even created that violent, lawless rage. Who knows: adhering to the Geneva Conventions might be worth something after all.

Still, the rigors and virtues of the hard path – his own and the Nation’s – must be on POTUS’s mind a lot lately. Maybe I’m just another amnesiac American, but can anyone remember the trials of George W. Bush’s first 100 days? Bill Clinton’s? I suppose POTUS is wise to ponder his burden a bit in public: the hand dealt him has not been loaded with aces. But we are an impatient people, and our attention span is woefully short for the arc of history. So we need frequent reminders that its being hard is okay. Thus, employees at the FBI were treated to a similar speech:

But after all, that is why America is unique, because of that fundamental belief that we are committed both to our security and to the rule of law, because of that hard-earned truth that we are always stronger when we act in concert with our most deeply held values. I have no illusions that this is simple or easy. Many of you made enormous sacrifices and are incredibly dedicated. Living our values means that we must hold ourselves to higher standard than our enemies. We face a long struggle against a determined adversary. We know that Al Qaida is not constrained by a constitution or by allegiance to anything other than a hateful ideology and a determination to kill as many innocents as possible. But what makes the United States of America so special is precisely the fact that we are willing to uphold our values and our ideals not just when it’s easy, but when it’s hard. We’ve been called to serve in such a time. (April 28, 2009)

As if patching our economic and energy sores weren’t enough, some of POTUS’s best and brightest “called to serve” in the open-ended U.S. war in Afghanistan have undertaken a “hard path” of their own, as some recent footage from Al Jazeera captures in shocking detail. As part of the battle for “hearts and minds” in Muslim Afghanistan, a coterie of Christian soldiers gathered to discuss the most effective ways to distribute Bibles in Pashto and Dari – Afghanistan’s two official languages – to “locals” with whom they have made contact. Westerners attached to the conventional stereotype of Islam as a religion “spread by the sword” and its madrassahs mere weapons arsenals might find themselves appalled at the images of American servicemen, on the taxpayer-funded payroll, planning a proselytizing mission in the field, with machine guns and automatic rifles propped up, boldly visible in the backdrop of this unholy chapel at Bagram Air Force Base. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has pled ignorance of the case. Meanwhile, the Bibles have apparently been confiscated.

The hard path overseas has been well documented, however, and quite likely we are tired of hearing of it. POTUS has naturally broadened his embrace of difficulty to include domestic concerns as well. Though many of POTUS’s predecessors, from Carter on, have talked about breaking the famous American addiction to fossil fuels, to foreign oil, to automobiles, to all things hydrocarbon, POTUS is taking some concrete steps toward getting us checked into rehab. The intervention begins with simple acknowledgment:

Now, there are those who still cling to the notion that we ought to just continue doing what we do; that . . . Americans like to use a lot of energy, that’s just how we are; that government has neither the responsibility nor the reason to address our dependence on energy sources, even though they undermine our security and threaten our economy and endanger our planet. And then there is this even more dangerous idea, the idea that there’s nothing we can do about it: “Our politics is broken; our people are unwilling to make hard choices.” So politicians decide: “Look, even though we know it’s something that has to be done, we’re just going to put it off.” That’s what happened for the last three, four, five decades. Everybody has known that we had to do something, but nobody wanted to actually go ahead and do it, because it’s hard. (April 22, 2009)

But cracking habits so deeply ingrained, in consumption as well as politics, is hard. How POTUS knows it! He recently had to quit smoking, on orders from FLOTUS, as the negotiated price for putting the family through a two-year presidential campaign and now life in the security bubble. Passing carbon cap-and-trade legislation and expanding tax credits for renewable energy companies may seem easy by comparison. But still hard. What about getting serious about fuel-efficiency and auto-emissions standards? Pretty hard. What about getting Chrysler and GM back on their feet? Really hard.

It’s been a pillar of our industrial economy, but, frankly, a pillar that’s been weakened by papering over tough problems and avoiding hard choices. For too long, Chrysler moved too slowly to adapt to the future, designing and building cars that were less popular, less reliable, and less fuel-efficient than foreign competitors. That’s part of what has brought us to a point where they sought taxpayer assistance. But as I’ve said from the start, we simply cannot keep this company, or any company, afloat on an endless supply of tax dollars. My job as President is to ensure that if tax dollars are being put on the line, they are being invested in a real fix that will make Chrysler more competitive. (April 30, 2009)

Talk about “hard choices.” Even securing a fully populated Cabinet has been rather hard for POTUS, but those labors appear finally to have born fruit. At the joint installation ceremony for former Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius as Secretary of Health and Human Services and former Washington Governor Gary Locke as Secretary of Commerce, POTUS preferred to reflect on the travails to come:

And my Cabinet is now full of energetic innovators like Kathleen and Gary, a team of leaders who push the envelope every day because they know that whether the wind is in our face or at our backs, America does not settle; we always march forward. I am thrilled to have them by my side as we continue the work of turning our economy around and laying a new foundation for growth that delivers on the change the American people asked for and the promise of a new and better day ahead. (May 1, 2009)

But for all you Tom Daschle fans out there, fear not: unless the former South Dakota Senator turned free-lance lobbyist is in the habit of spending his days at a Dupont Circle Starbuck’s in full suit with briefcase – the form in which he appeared as I cruised past him on my bike yesterday – I don’t think he’s collecting unemployment checks just yet. As for POTUS, that hard business is through now, however, and he can turn his attention to the rocky path ahead.

And one of the encouraging things for me is the fact that the American people know this. You know that our progress has to be measured in the results that we achieve over many months and years, not the minute-by-minute talk in the media. And you know that progress comes from hard choices and hard work, not miracles. I’m not a miracle worker. We’ve got a lot of tough choices and hard decisions and hard work ahead of us. The 100th day might be a good time to reflect on where we are, but it’s more important to where we’re going that we focus on the future, because we can’t rest until our economy is growing and we’ve built that new foundation for our prosperity. (April 29, 2009)

Are we up to that noble task?

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2 Responses to POTUS and the Hard Path

  1. Claudia Liberatore says:

    POTUS, as you so beautifully point out, will need the help of the young, creative, and energetic to collaboratively turn that new, young leaf over. As usual, thanks!

  2. Sarah says:

    This is wonderful stuff. I feel like I’m right there listening to the POTUS. Thanks for the inside view. I think you should apply for a POTUS speechwriter position.

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