While I was traveling, the White House saw possibly the most surrealistic event in the history of the US Presidency (or at least since we have media documentation).
Ed Driscoll (whose title I couldn’t resist swiping) sums it up :
Mr. I’ll Stop the Rise of the Seas handed the presidency to one of his predecessors on Friday. During a press conference in the White House briefing room, the President of the United States handed the bully pulpit over to Bill Clinton. Obama and Clinton had just held a closed door meeting regarding the Bush tax cut deal and presumably discussed what Obama must do now that he faces a Republican majority in the House. The pair of presidents decided to hold an impromptu press conference. A few minutes in, Obama walks out, leaving Clinton to hold court with the White House press corps.
Clinton hasn’t been POTUS now for about 10 years, but he showed that he’s still the wonk he always was, citing facts and figures and selling the Obama deal better than Obama has bothered to try. But Clinton’s performance isn’t the most important part of the story. The important parts are what Friday’s moment says and what it symbolizes. As a former President of the United States, Clinton is entitled to be addressed as “Mr. President,” and that’s of course how the press addressed him, which only added to Friday’s confusion: With Obama off to meet his wife and attend a Christmas party, Clinton got to play President for a Day.
Adds Ed Driscoll:
[…W]hat does this moment from Friday communicate to the world?
I doubt that the symbolism of Friday’s presser was intentional. I don’t think that Obama believed that his walking out would be seen as the abdication of leadership that it was. Like the Greek columns and the Berlin speech, Obama probably intended to the imagery to say one thing, but it accidentally said something else entirely. Friday’s press conference struck me as another sign of disrespect for the office he holds, and another of Barack Obama’s misuses of the power with which he has been entrusted. He intended to show unity with the former and still popular President, but actually told the world that he’s no longer up to his job and won’t even bother trying to pretend he is. Roger wrote over the weekend that it showed that America doesn’t have a leader now. That’s right, and it’s very dangerous.
The image that Obama broadcast on Friday was one of serious, and perhaps incurable, weakness. The moment looked like what happens in a corporate setting, when an experienced hand steps in to temporarily take over for a inexperienced executive who has botched a big job and needs time to get his mind right. What happens next in the corporate world is that the junior exec gets some training, or gets sidelined, or gets fired. But we’re not talking about a junior exec. There’s no training available, no sideline to run to, and his contract lasts a couple more years.
Obama has taken the presidency to a moment of such weakness that we have to reach back to Watergate for a comparison, but Obama’s moment wasn’t brought on by scandal. It’s the result of his personality and his lack of preparation for the job, “first class temperament” notwithstanding. And it’s also the result of how he views the job, as a symbol of authority rather than the fact and exercise of authority.
Kim Jong-Il and his successor son are watching, as are Vlad Putin, the Chinese Communists, al Qaeda, the mullahcracy in Iran and every other potential threat or challenger on the planet. If Obama can’t handle his own party or a simple press conference, can he handle Somali pirates, Hugo Chavez or that shopworn 3 am crisis?
On Friday, when he exited the stage and left Bill Clinton temporarily in charge, Barack Obama told the world that he can no longer handle any of that.
UPDATE: Victor Davis Hanson: Our “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” moment