Crisis seems to bring about the best and worst in a people, and the unfolding catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico is no exception. CBS News ran a story the other night about an 11-year-old, bird-loving little girl who volunteered to paint and sell pictures of birds and donate the proceeds to the Audubon Society to aid in the rescue of wildlife in the Gulf. So far, she's raised $100,000. The story ended with the girl finding an oily feather on the beach and crying "it's just not fair." You'd have to be pretty hard-hearted not to be touched by that.
No doubt there are countless other stories of people volunteering to help to save the animals, habitat, and people of the Gulf Coast. But there has been an uglier, disturbing reaction too.
Watching MSNBC the other night before President Obama's Oval Office address, I listened in horror as Ed Schultz, who increasingly seems to want to be the Rush Limbaugh of the left, called on the president to act like "a dictator" in this crisis. He said it not once, but twice, leading me to conclude that it was no mere slip of the tongue or inadvertent rhetorical flourish but a sincere belief. That morning, a letter in the New York Times called on Obama to emulate Harry Truman's threat to draft striking coal miners and "think about the law later."
There is, I suppose, a natural tendency to yearn for a strong leader in troubling times. Watching this tragedy unfold day after day with no end in sight creates a sense of despair and hopelessness, not to mention helplessness, among the public. We want someone to "do something." For weeks commentators have been saying essentially that to Obama. Now, few if any of them have actual concrete suggestions for the president. He should show emotion, take charge, or in the vacuous words of Sarah Palin, give us the "assurance ... that [stopping the leak] has been his top priority." With the exception of his somewhat embarrassing statement that he was looking to find "whose ass to kick," Obama has resisted these entreaties.
This is not just about temperament. It is about real leadership. Anyone can show anger, but anger is not leadership.
Let's look more closely at the Truman example. Now, if there was ever a president who was good at getting angry and showing emotion, it was Harry Truman. He had a refreshing tendency to wear his heart on his sleeve and say exactly what he was thinking, even when that was not the most politic thing to do. The Times letter writer longs for decisive leadership like Truman showed during the "coal miner's strike that could have hindered the American war effort in Korea."
First of all, the letter writer is conflating two different events. The coal strike, when Truman threatened to draft the miners, was in 1946, four years before the Korean War began. What the writer is thinking of was Truman's takeover of the steel industry in April 1952. The confusion notwithstanding, both events are indeed examples of Truman's "take charge" approach. So how did they play out?
In 1946, the United States was experiencing unprecedented labor action. With the wage and price controls of World War II lifted, labor sought to recoup some of the gains lost during the lean years of the depression and the war. April saw strikes in the coal, steel, automobile and railroad industries. Truman was subject to the same kinds of pleas from the public that plague Obama today. As David McCullough tells us in his biography of Truman, telegrams flooded the White House: "Is the present incumbent impotent in the railroad strike?" "Why don't you go ahead and act?" "Less talk and more action." "Time to get tough." At a meeting with veterans, a World War II soldier in a wheelchair said to Truman "Draft all the strikers."
As he was want to do, Truman vented his rage by writing out an angry speech (never given) in which he intemperately wrote "Let's ... hang a few traitors." He then calmed down (a bit) and told his cabinet that he was going to draft the strikers. When his attorney general challenged the constitutionality of the idea, Truman supposedly replied "we'll draft them and think about the law later."
This is the dangerous example some people would have Obama follow. But what did Truman actually do? First of all, in his speech to Congress, he proposed to ask Congress for legislation authorizing him to draft strikers. He did not threaten to do it on his own authority. While the House quickly and supinely submitted to his request by a huge margin (306-13) after debating the issue for less than two hours, the Senate took its time and shot the proposal down by a large margin, 70-13. The strike was settled without such a draconian abuse of power.
In the 1952 case, Truman seized the steel mills, citing management's refusal to reach a reasonable contract with labor. He acted under the so-called "inherent powers" of the president (the same argument that the unitary executive extremists empowered by Dick Cheney in the last administration used to justify torture and warrantless wiretaps). A federal judge ruled against Truman's "claim to unlimited and unrestrained Executive power." Later the Supreme Court agreed, in a 6-3 decision, that Truman had overstepped his bounds. It was, McCullough concludes, "a humiliating defeat."
In both cases, Truman showed emotion, took charge, and acted impetuously. In both cases, the checks and balances of our constitutional system intervened and prevented him from abusing his power. In both cases, Truman emerged from the crisis looking weaker, not stronger. And this is the example some people urge Obama to follow.
What has Obama's more measured response achieved? There are, of course, plenty of things to criticize in his response to this disaster. Certainly the clean-up should have been mobilized more quickly, and now that it has begun, it does seem rife with red tape and confusion about who is in charge. But note what happened yesterday, the day after Obama's Oval Office address was panned by critics on all sides of the political spectrum. BP agreed to suspend dividend payments and set up a $20 billion fund, administered not by the company but by a government appointed administrator, to compensate victims of the disaster.
Note also that last month Democrats in Congress proposed increasing the corporate liability from $75 million to $10 billion, and that Republican filibuster threats have killed the proposal. Now, without having a public temper tantrum, and without abusing his power, the president has gotten BP's voluntary agreement to set aside at a minimum (since this is not a cap) twice that amount.
The delusion that a dictator could take charge and magically and instantly solve our problems is as dangerous as it is seductive. But as Eleanor Roosevelt reminded Truman in a private letter during the 1946 crisis, "there must not be any slip, because of the difficulties of our peacetime situation, into a military way of thinking." Fortunately, Obama seems to understand that much better than his hectoring critics.