Since gun regulation failed the 60-vote threshold in the Senate, some pundits have trotted out the "failure of presidential leadership" meme. See Maureen Dowd, Ron Fournier, Dana Milbank, or Peggy Noonan for example. To most political scientists -- hell, to most people who've taken an advanced poli sci course -- this a pretty unpersuasive argument. Andrew Rudalevige, Ezra Klein, Seth Masket, Jonathan Bernstein, and Jonathan Chait have all pushed back fiercely on this question.
Now, that said, pushback on the leadership question is difficult for two reasons. First, there's a lot of the political commentariat that wants the world to operate along the Aaron Sorkin Big Speech Theory of Politics. Klein is correct to observe that "the world isn't here to please you," but it's amazing how much wishcasting can make it easy to ignore.
The second problem is that in pushing back, it is too easy for critics to be interpreted as saying that presidential leadership does not exist. So critics should point out moments or opportunities for presidential leadership to better define the boundaries of this concept.
For one example, I give you Randall Archibold and Michael Shear's story in the New York Times about Obama's Mexico trip. The title gives it away: "Obama Seeks to Banish Stereotypical Image of Mexico."
President Obama, in speech to high school and university students here, said Friday that it was time to banish the stereotypical Mexico of violence and people fleeing across borders and embrace the new image of a strengthening democracy and economy.
“I have come to Mexico because it is time to put old mind-sets aside,’’ Mr. Obama said to vigorous applause from hundreds of students at the National Anthropology Museum. “It’s time to recognize new realities, including the impressive progress in today’s Mexico. For even as Mexicans continue to make courageous sacrifices for the security of your country, even as Mexicans in the countryside and in neighborhoods not far from here struggle to give their children a better life, it’s also clear that a new Mexico is emerging.'’
Although poverty remains deep and wages have stagnated, Mr. Obama focused on the positive signs of the economy, including growth measurements that exceed those in the United States, a surge in the manufacturing and technology industries and rising levels of middle class Mexicans.
OK, this matters. As the Chicago Council on Global Affairs demonstrated in their poll this week, Americans have a dim and distorted view of Mexico. Mention that country, and the three issues that spring immediately to mind are drugs, illegal immigration, and the "giant sucking sound" of NAFTA. In point of fact, illegal immigration has slowed to a trickle and outward Mexican FDI has exploded. Mexico's new president is pretty popular, and the next head of the WTO might be Mexican as well. Most Americans know nothing contained in the last two sentences.
One thing presidents can do with their bully pulpit is try to correct public misperceptions that are detrimental to the national interest ... like U.S. views on Mexico. Let's not kid ourselves -- one visit and one speech alone won't do that. But it can start to alter public attitudes on the margins. That's a start -- and very useful example of positive presidential leadership.
Your humble blogger is writing from Mexico City, where tomorrow he'll be part of a one-day conference at the Center for International Studies at El Colegio de Mexico on U.S. foreign policy in 2013.
The conference is tomorrow, but the journey was today, and it was a pretty interesting journey given that it started with my alarm going off at 4:30 AM. Some highlights:
1) In an effort to travel light, I normally wear at least one of the suit jackets I have to bring to a trip for the plane. I got up so early today, however, that I figured I was just dress very casual for the flight. Naturally, this would be the day I bump into a very well respected senior scholar in my field at the Newark airport.
2) Right before taking off from Newark to Mexico City, a flight attendant asked the man sitting next to me for his autograph. I later discover that I was sitting next to Iron Chef Morimoto. Cool!
3) Less cool: watching CNN on the flight. I made the mistake of watching Ashleigh Banfield's lead segment, on the New York Fed bombing attempt. Banfield was obsessed that the suspected terrorist got into the states on a student visa. Her first three questions to the homeland security expert boiled down to the following:
A) Shouldn't the U.S. radically reduce the number of student visas it issues?
B) Why can't the U.S. government monitor every person coming into the United States on a student visa?
C) Could the U.S. government use these student visas as a way of draining foreign swamps and bringing terrorists to the United States.
Kudos to the security expert who basically said that none of these ideas were workable. My head would have hurt banging it into the camera.
4) Some very nice students picked me up from the airport and took me to the college, which is right by Mexico's 1968 Olympic Stadium. They also revealed the ways in which political scientists are viewed in different countries. Apparently, this college was relocated from the downtown to a more isolated part of Mexico City. Furthermore, within this "University City," the political scientists are housed in a structure separate from the rest of the social scientists. Why? Because the old PRI governments feared student protests led by political scientists! Which is not really a fear in the United States.
5) The only thing better than watching the Yankees getting swept in the ALCS? Watching it en espagnol, and hearing the announcer boom "PROFUNDO!!" when the Tigers hit a home run.
Your humble blogger has been off the grid the past few days because he was
north of the Guatemalan border south of the Rio Grande the past few days as a (very happy) guest of the Mexican Foreign Ministry's Matias Romero Institute. I was there to talk about economic powers and the G-20.
A few random world politics and travel notes:
1) Let me add Mexico to the list of Civilized Countries Not Stupid Enough to Force Travelers to Remove Footwear Going Through Security. Hear that, TSA???!!!! This list is getting really friggin' long, and I don't see the United States anywhere on it!!!!
Sorry, I had to get that out of my system.
2) I'm a reasonably well-read guy, and tend to hang around with people who claim to be up on world politics. When I told these people that I was going to Mexico City, many gave me the long look and said something to the effect of "be very careful." Now, I understand that stories like this well lead to generalized concern about the entire country, but it really shouldn't. True, there are certainly neighborhoods that one should avoid in Mexico's capital. But this is also true of Washington, DC, and no one tells me to be careful going there.
In other words, I think the fears about Mexico City might be exaggerated in the US press.
3) I have now been in a real Mexico City traffic jam. I can safely say I don't want to be in another one.
4) Mexico will be hosting the G-20 leaders summit in 2012, which will be interesting timing, to say the least. I had the good fortune to meet with some of the officials who will be managing the process, and
I advised them to use the summit to announce their re-annexation of California let's just say there's some... uncertainty about how the G-20 will play out in the next few years.
5) It was pretty cool to discover that there are a robust number of zombie lovers in Mexzico.
More later when I catch up on the events of the day.
So, just to be clear:
So.... what's next? Cattle disease? Locusts? Salma Hayek parting the Rio Grande?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.