Sunday, July 25, 2010

Does the Sherrod Incident Signal a Larger Problem in the Administration?

By now, just about everyone has heard about the firing and immediate unfiring of Shirley Sherrod, the Dept. of Agriculture official who was falsely accused of racism. The unfairness of her treatment is beyond doubt, and apologies from right to left have beaten a path to her door. But the hyper speed at which the administration made decisions about her, before all the facts were known, suggest a larger problem in the Obama administration: panic.

The administration seems to have made a terribly hurried decision about Sherrod, evidently to pre-empt the Internet-driven 24/7 news cycle. The administration's apparent fear of right-wing cable TV commentators and Tea Party chat rooms seems to have prevailed over reasoned analysis, a sense of fairness, and old-fashioned levelheadedness. One wonders whether the swiftness of Sherrod's firing reflected a calculated attempt to have a Sister Souljah moment. But the overall impression isn't one of political maneuvering, but discombobulation.

This is a bad thing, not just for the next Sherrod-type incident (and you can bet there will be more, since right wing activists will surely be emboldened by the administration's missteps), but for the larger problems facing the President. Terrorists, renegade nations with nuclear ambitions, and a resurgent Taliban present daily difficulties. The economy is slowing, and the Lake Wobegon style stress tests recently conducted on European banks not surprisingly showed almost all banks above average, thus providing limited assurance. The federal deficit mostly waxes, rather than waning.

A White House in panic mode could make bad decisions in a wide variety of situations, causing much avoidable harm and embarrassment. The question isn't whether high ranking administration officials botch their careers. The question is whether the nation suffers needlessly. If George Washington had panicked after his army was driven out of New York in 1776, he would not have won Christmas victories at Trenton and Princeton. There would be no United States.

The game of gotcha politics has a sucking quality that draws everyone into a vortex of point-counterpoint, summoning unpleasant memories of elementary school playgrounds. The celerity of the Internet leverages the childishness and cheapness. Sound decision making requires steadiness, dispassion, reasoned analysis based on a complete picture, and fairness. Grace under pressure isn't an anachronism extolled by Ernest Hemingway that's emblematic of the World War II generation. It's a vital characteristic of good leadership. Barack Obama can look calm and sound cool, but the handling of the Sherrod incident belies that image.

The pressure from ongoing events is enormous. The war in Afghanistan is bogging down. The re-defection to Iran (if that's what it was) of nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri must have thrown the intelligence community for a loop, at a time when the potential for a negotiated resolution over Iran's nuclear ambitions is shrinking. Unemployment levels remain stubbornly high, and there is no chance of significant reductions before the fall mid-term elections. The economy is slowing, and the fact that so many prominent officials and economists insist there won't be a double-dip recession suggests the growing possibility of one. North Korean megalomania looms ever larger.

With events moving so fast, the President can't afford more than a 20-second timeout. But he'd better call one, get his people in a huddle, and calm things down. Perhaps no government officials should be carted to the guillotine on account of the Sherrod incident. Perhaps the next time a right wing blogger tosses a cheap shot into the 24/7 news cycle, it should garner contempt instead of a hasty misjudgment. When an important issue of national security or national economic policy comes up, ignore the enfilade of gotchas from cable TV and the blogosphere. Get all available information, think the problem through, and do the right thing. Fear and insecurity can destroy a Presidency. (Google "Richard Nixon" for more on this point.) The great Presidents became great in spite of their critics, not by pandering to them.

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