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What to do When the Republic is on Fire

May 19, 2010

In his column on Obama and the Oil Spill, Thomas Friedman writes:

Obama is not just our super-disaster-coordinator. “He is our leader,” noted Tim Shriver, the chairman of Special Olympics. “And being a leader means telling the rest of us what’s our job, what do we need to do to make this a transformative moment.”

What Friedman actually means, of course, is that it is the job of the New York Times columnist to tell Obama how to end America’s addiction to oil, and Obama’s job to relay that message to the public. Even as he reiterates his call for presidential leadership in the concluding paragraph, Friedman shifts from discussing Obama in the third person to advising the president more directly:

Please don’t tell us that our role is just to hate BP or shop in Mississippi or wait for a commission to investigate. We know the problem, and Americans are ready to be enlisted for a solution. Of course we can’t eliminate oil exploration or dependence overnight, but can we finally start? Mr. President, your advisers are wrong: Americans are craving your leadership on this issue. Are you going to channel their good will into something that strengthens our country — “The Obama End to Oil Addiction Act” — or are you going squander your [opportunity to mobilize the country] too?

Notice the use of the imperative (“Please don’t tell us…”), the vocative (Mr. President, your advisers are wrong…”), and the second person (“Are you going to channel their good will”?). What began as an op-ed ends as an open letter.

Viewed one way, Friedman’s rhetorical shift seems altogether appropriate. This is, after all, the New York Times — which Obama presumably reads. What Friedman fails to acknowledge, however, is that leaders have to prioritize in a way opinion-makers don’t.

For Obama, taking Friedman’s advice would mean not taking Simon Johnson’s advice. Even as Friedman urges the Obama to take the lead on energy, Johnson is asking “Where Is the President?” now that the Senate Republicans have blocked a vote on an amendment that would break up the big banks:

Only the president can break through the daily logjam of information. Only the president can define the issues in the simple, powerful and convincing terms that people can grasp. Only the president can insist – this is a matter of urgent national priority.

Johnson concludes with a string of imperatives:

Don’t move on. Pick up the baseball bat that Paul Volcker has given you. Either that or go down to the most embarrassing, humiliating, and memorable defeat in the history of Wall Street-Washington confrontations.

What we have then are two self-appointed presidential advisers — both of whom are essentially saying, “the fate of the Republic hangs in the balance; you must do as I say to avoid catastrophe.” Friedman would have Obama devote himself to mustering public support for carbon emissions legislation, while Johnson insists that president “stop the clock and put everything else on hold” until the financial regulation amendment passes. Obama can’t do both at once — or, at least, he can’t provide the kind of leadership desired by Friedman and Johnson both.

It is as though the Republicans have set fire to every house on a city block, and Obama must decide: do we put out all the fires first, and then start saving people? Or do we evacuate the nursing home? What about the little girl peering out the second story window of the house at the end of the block? No sane person would deny the importance of putting out the fires or saving the people.

The question is, how?

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