Sunday, November 14, 2010

International Perspectives on the President

Although this type of claim by David Ignatius smacks of Thomas Friedman's "taxi drivers who happen to echo my exact beliefs", it's worth examining:
What the world sees, I'm afraid, is a weak U.S. president who isn't solving domestic economic problems, let alone global ones. But that's more a symptom than a cause. What's happening at a deeper level is a breakdown of the U.S. political system's ability to find consensus and make decisions. Washington doesn't work, as critics from the Tea Party right to the progressive left keep insisting.
In my younger years when I've lived abroad, and in my subsequent travels, I've heard a lot of discussion of the U.S. political system by those in other countries. As should go without saying, most people from other nations have a significantly worse understanding of how our government works than do the people of our nation - and... um, we (collectively) don't know a whole lot.

Media coverage of U.S. political issues often focuses on the President, and often approaches him as if his power is somewhere between that of a prime minister and a monarch, setting an agenda for his country and largely able to push it through. When the President wants something and it doesn't happen, yes, the international perspective may be that he looks weak - but that may in fact be a more accurate perception than the one Ignatius apparently prefers. Further, if you're from a nation with a parliamentary system, more so if it has a tradition of strong party unity, it's difficult to understand how somebody who you presume to be the actual (as opposed to de facto) leader of his party can't get them to follow his agenda.

Ignatius also appears to make the mistake of overstating the importance of U.S. politics to people of other nations and how much time they spend thinking about the U.S. president, perhaps because during his travels that's all he talks about and thus most of what he hears about. More importantly, he disregards the fact that popular impressions of the President in other nations are largely irrelevant, and can be just as media-driven, event-driven and fickle as political opinions in this nation. Does Ignatius know that the international view of Reagan was largely not flattering - doddering and not very intelligent? That G.W. was widely viewed internationally as an incompetent moron? I doubt that either would have been reelected had the election been held internationally. Does it matter? If so, why?

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