The dialogue sounds a bit like something out of a Cold War spy novel, especially the part where outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev says: “I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.” It sounds eerily like an agent promising to pass along sensitive material to his handler. But wait—isn’t that the role Vladimir Putin has been playing for the past few years—the real “handler” of things, biding his time before he once again has the title to go with his real clout? Does anyone with a brain think that poor Medvedev has been doing anything other than a protracted exercise in presidential surrogacy?
Despite President Obama’s attempts at humor and spin, one question should be on the radar of those handling him—does the President of the United States need a teleprompter for his private conversations? Throughout American history, chief executives have engaged in various degrees of backroom and back channel wheeling and dealing, from Nixon era “shuttle diplomacy,” to Franklin Roosevelt’s oft used slight of political hand, to JFK promising the Soviets that the missiles in Turkey would be gone shortly after a peaceful resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis. But these men had the presence of mind when microphones and cameras were present to guard their tongues and body language.
Of course, with predictable expedition and animation, news outlets have been flooded with spin and counter spin since that now famous gaffe. The President’s agents provocateur say it is no big deal, while Mr. Obama’s critics have seized on it to craft an ominous forecast should he win reelection this November. So who’s right?
Well, if history is any indicator (and it usually is), the good money is on what President Obama’s critics are saying.
It has been pretty well established via overwhelming precedent that once a president is reelected he does indeed become more—shall we say—“flexible.” In fact, it could be effectively argued that a second term reveals much more about the real person in office and what truly matters than does the first term. And most of the time a second term is a study in hubris—excessive pride or arrogance. Presidents who have won reelection to a new term invariably see it as a mandate, a national “go for it” liberating the leader from partisan (or in many cases, bipartisan) considerations.