What explains the extravagant but groundless praise politicians sometimes receive?
In punditry, the constant temptation is to attack weak arguments. As Matt Yglesias explained in a post I can't locate, the advantage is that if you're discrediting the worst ideas out there, that's not nothing!
There may be strong arguments for the proposition that Barack Obama is a good president. They're worthy of attention, and I'll get to them in the course of the upcoming campaign. But Gregg Easterbrook, a journalist whose work I've long followed and enjoyed, has advanced a weak argument for the proposition, and because I've seen similar takes elsewhere, I think it's worth refuting.
Says Easterbrook, in a column on people he deems worthy of praise:
Barack Obama: His "next year we will get serious about the national debt" act is wearing thin. But in the main, Obama has been a good president -- and Americans are turning post-racial so quickly that already we seem to shrug about the incredible historic significance of an African-American in the Oval Office.
Obama took command of the country at a low point: a deep recession, a costly quagmire in Iraq. If he'd come onto the national stage under the conditions encountered by the previous two chief executives -- Bill Clinton took the White House at the start of an economic boom, George W. Bush took the White House just before 9-11, which ensured him a five-year honeymoon as the nation rallied -- Obama might already be viewed as a great president. And he might still cross that threshold. Obamacare was a major legislative achievement, and though it has bureaucratic-nightmare potential, bear in mind that few of its advantages have yet taken effect.
That's the whole argument. Does anyone else find it bizarre? It starts off by alluding to the fact that Obama keeps promising to do something he hasn't: get serious about the national debt. So that's one strike against him. Next is the historic fact that he is the first black president, which is great, but doesn't bear on whether he is a good or bad president. Easterbrook then observes that Obama "took command" of the country "at a low point." Okay, but that isn't an argument that he's a good president. "If he'd come into power" at a better time, Easterbrook continues, he "might already be viewed as a great president." An interesting conjecture about public perceptions -- but not an affirmative argument that Obama is in fact a good president. All that's left is this:
Obamacare was a major legislative achievement, and though it has bureaucratic-nightmare potential, bear in mind that few of its advantages have yet taken effect.
It's one thing to assert that Obamacare was good reform legislation and offer compelling reasons why. But how bizarre to assert it as a major achievement in the same sentence where you note that "it has bureaucratic-nightmare potential"? If it indeed turns into a bureaucratic nightmare, wouldn't that make it bad legislation? Even the addendum that "few of its advantages have yet taken effect" sounds suspiciously like an admission that its upside remains speculative.
So all in all, a weak case for Obama. It seems grounded in some unexplained impulse to like the president more than a cogent analysis of his tenure. Admittedly, he's a likable guy. I think that's leading people astray.
Later in the same column, Easterbrook praises another politician:
Mitt Romney: So he flip-flops. If this is the worst thing about him, he's a welcome addition to national politics. Romney has been a success as a business and a government executive. He behaves honorably and treats others with respect. At a time when American discourse grows bitter and divisive, an Obama-Romney presidential race could set an example for high-minded public behavior.
This seems similarly weak to me. The notion that Romney's rhetoric is "high-minded" and that he "behaves honorably and treats others with respect" is grounded in superficial analysis of the most misleading kind -- sure, Romney's style is less bombastic than Michele Bachmann's or Sarah Palin's, but a less reductive way of judging honorableness and respect for others is to look at substance too.
In this campaign, Romney has contradicted himself and misrepresented his past positions frequently enough that it's fair to say he has no problem lying to voters. He has also misrepresented Obama's record and behaved like a demagogue -- when declaring, for example, that the president appeases our foreign enemies and has embarked on an apology tour of the world.
There is, I'd argue, an airtight case that Romney often behaves dishonorably, frequently disrespects his political opponents, and regularly falls short of "high-minded behavior." Surveying America's politicians, could anyone seriously argue that Romney is more "high-minded" than Buddy Roemer or Gary Johnson or Russ Feingold or even Jon Huntsman? I am always confounded when longtime journalists offer what seems to me groundless praise for establishment pols. It would, admittedly, be nice if Election 2012 was going to be a "high-minded contest."
But predicting that is nothing more than wishful thinking.