All presidents fail at something sooner or later, but I don’t remember a time when we were so determined to make it happen. Our expectations for fixing the problems dumped in Trump’s lap should be pretty low. There is a very long history of failed presidential leadership and unsolved problems before him. Instead of cutting Trump some slack, Americans want this president to fail at the very same problems his predecessors never successfully tackled and yes, North Korea is on that list.
Iran, Prague Agenda, and a nuclear North Korea
Obama’s presidential leadership cooked up the Prague Agenda to stop nuclear proliferation. Then he sealed a legacy-making deal with Iran, relying on the Cuban Missile Crisis for support. He gave credit to JFK:
Instead, he promised strong, principled American leadership on behalf of what he called a “practical” and “attainable peace” — a peace “based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions — on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements.”1
Few of us remember the turmoil that sprung from that crisis. The popular memory knows a story of a brave president who faced down the Russian menace. We tend to forget the big question raised by Republicans: why didn’t the administration know about the missiles sooner?
Bush, Obama play kick the can
There is no such problem with North Korea. We can’t argue that we were blindsided. We’ve known about their nuclear program for many years. This came from President George W. Bush:
The policy of the United States is a Korean Peninsula free of all nuclear weapons. This morning, we moved a step closer to that goal, when North Korean officials submitted a declaration of their nuclear programs to the Chinese government as part of the six-party talks.2
Next there was Barack Obama:
To be clear, the United States does not, and never will, accept North Korea as a nuclear state.3
But we did.
Now it’s Trump’s problem.
History of failed presidential leadership means Trump gets blamed
Now the Korean Peninsula’s fate is in Trump’s hands. The problem is too big to solve and many will die if we act, or so we are told. Kennedy came through the Cuban Missile Crisis a hero. If Trump prevails and ends the history of failed presidential leadership that brought us to this breaking point much of the nation will be disappointed. The press will ensure he comes out the villain or at best a hapless leader who got lucky. The groundwork is already there. We will forget who paved the trail that ended here.
History of failure feeds our politics
There’s more to the story than North Korea. It just happens to be the problem never solved that will kill the most people if we don’t fix it now.
It’s no secret that politics is not about solutions. That’s one of the reasons the Trump presidency faces so many crises. Mr. Trump made a big mistake. He thought he could fix the inertia of Washington and his own party and get something done. Remember LBJ’s war on poverty, Ronald Reagan’s immigration plan, Bill Clinton’s stab at tax reform, and Barack Obama’s health care bill? In politics the best solutions are always failures and half-fixes that come back to spawn more bills.
What does Mitch McConnell have in common with Kim Jong-un?
What sorry company for our Senate leader. Kim Jong-un and Mitch McConnell share the president’s angry gaze. The former is a problem neglected by a history of presidential leadership that said all the right things and never solved the problem. The latter is part of America’s biggest problem, a too-comfortable Congress.
Being reelected is a good thing.
Solutions never solve anything.
1. “Remarks by the President on the Iran Nuclear Deal.” The White House. President Barack Obama. August 5, 2015. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/08/05/remarks-president-iran-nuclear-deal, retrieved August 10, 2017.
2. “President Bush Discusses North Korea.” The White House. President George W. Bush. June 26, 2008. https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2008/06/20080626-9.html, retrieved August 11, 2017.
3. Pellerin, Cheryl. “Obama, Carter Strongly Condemn North Korea’s Latest Nuclear Test.” U.S. Department of Defense. September 9, 2016. https://www.defense.gov/News/Article/Article/939467/obama-carter-strongly-condemn-north-koreas-latest-nuclear-test/, retrieved August 11,