Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Sarah Palin and Barack Obama: Has Premature Fame Sabotaged Them?

by Michael Kaplan

“Two years ago, two superstars lit up a dazzled political universe—young, stunning, lissome, and bursting with talent—and were propelled ahead of their time into prominence, after a minimal time on the national scene. Two years later, it seems as if this has done them no favors: President Obama is widely seen as ‘overwhelmed’ by his office, and Sarah Palin is meeting resistance establishing her credentials as a possible candidate against rivals with rather more seasoning.”

Noemie Emery wrote this in the Washington Examiner, raising the one issue that I believe can prevent Sarah Palin from becoming this generation’s Andrew Jackson or Ronald Reagan. I wrote in an earlier post that Palin had eschewed the traditional routes to political power, choosing instead to use the new media to become the face and voice of Jacksonian America, make a lot of money, and remain ever present in the public eye. But as Emery points out, mastery of the media is no substitute for the solid nuts and bolts experience of policy making, the give-and-take of practical politics, and governing. Palin was getting this experience and developing her leadership skills as governor of Alaska, until fate, and John McCain, intervened to throw her into the national spotlight.

This is the same problem that President Obama has had to contend with. Walter Russell Mead recently wrote that what Obama really needed was to have finished his term in the Senate and then serve at least one term as governor of Illinois before running for president. The lessons he would have learned in Springfield might have spared him subsequent embarrassment on the national and international stages. Hailed as a transformational leader in 2008, Obama, after two years as president, has taken a hard fall back down to earth. Eloquence and charisma alone cannot take the place of hard won experience.

America’s greatest leaders served long apprenticeships in both public service and the private sector before making bids for the presidency. Washington, of course, made his name as a military leader, but he also served more than a decade in Virginia’s House of Burgesses as well as managing his Mount Vernon plantation. Jackson, likewise, won national renown as a victorious general and also managed his Hermitage plantation, a law practice, and a number of business ventures (including slave trading) as well being actively engaged in Tennessee state politics. By the time he re-entered national politics in the 1850s, Lincoln had spent many years as an Illinois state legislator and built a thriving legal practice, serving as a corporate counsel and lobbyist for the Illinois Central Railway, one of the nation’s largest corporations at the time. More recently, Reagan, besides being an actor, was president of the Screen Actors Guild, a corporate spokesman for GE, a leader and thinker in the conservative movement, and finally two-term governor of the nation’s most populous state. Of course these men operated in a media environment very different from the 24/7 media saturation of the twenty-first century. When they did get recognition, it was for solid achievements both in and out of government.

Bobby Jindal, another up and coming leader who’s been talked about as a “new Reagan” has wisely chosen to avoid premature celebrity and a premature run for the presidency. Instead, he has focused on his work as governor, rebuilding Louisiana from the ruins of Katrina. Jindal demonstrated outstanding leadership dealing with the BP oil spill, even coming to blows with President Obama on the logistics of getting federal aid to the beleaguered Gulf coast.

Jacob Heilbrunn, a liberal internationalist and a fierce critic of Palin and all Jacksonian conservatives, argues that she is deliberately crafting an image of provinciality in order to strengthen her street cred with . . . boobus americanus. “The truth is that Palin’s very ignorance serves as her vital badge of credibility with the right. The less she knows about foreign countries, the purer she appears. . . . She doesn't want seasoning. She wants to be unseasoned.” Heilbrunn believes that Palin is indeed the ideal standard bearer for Jacksonian America, “God-fearing folk carrying the mantle of American exceptionalism.” Of course, Heilbruun does not mean this as a compliment. Like most elite internationalists, liberal or conservative, he has nothing but contempt for Jacksonian America and those who embody its passion for liberty, honor, and American exceptionalism. And so he “misunderestimates” Mama Grizzily’s ability to rise to the challenges of leadership with knowledge and decisiveness, and rally her Jacksonian supporters into a force to be reckoned with.

Palinand ObamaNoemie Emery concludes, needed at least six more years outside the national spotlight to grow into their leadership roles. “Instead, their growth was checked at a critical moment, and, as it seems now, won’t be resumed quickly—not in the presidency as Obama is learning, or in a media frenzy, as Palin has found.” My guess is that Emery (like Heilbrunn) underestimates Palin’s ability to navigate a learning curve. A Sarah Palin properly tempered on the forge of experience could become one of the outstanding leaders in American history. She has an intuitive understanding of Jacksonian America and its aspirations; she is eloquent in articulating the Jacksonian faith in American exceptionalism. But if she is to reach beyond her conservative base and convince the broader American public that she has what it takes to lead the nation in these perilous times, she must, as Charles Krauthammer insists, demonstrate a mastery of public policy. This will not be easy for Palin to do in the glare of an often hostile media. If she plays her cards right, Americans may one day look back on “Mama Grizzly” as an iconic figure in the mold of Old Hickory. I hope she hasn’t missed her opportunity.

Here is Sarah’s take-no-prisoners response to some of her critics on a December 16 segment of The O’Reilly Factor.

© 2010 Michael Kaplan