Ebola, Trust, Competence, and “The Only Thing We HaveTo Fear Is Fear Itself” Ethics

On the 4th of March, 1933, newly elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, taking over the Presidency in the teeth of the Great Depression, intoned his famous words, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself!”  It was bravado, of course, and in essence a lie: there was a lot to fear. Roosevelt knew it, and the public certainly knew it. The whole economic system seemed to be falling apart. Anti-capitalist evolutionaries were looking for an opportunity to revolt. Nobody was sure what to do.

The statement was effective, however, in focusing the nation on the challenges at hand and riveting the pubic attention on solving problems rather than cringing in terror in fear of them. Roosevelt was a magnificent speaker, warm and charismatic, and that contributed to the force of his rhetoric, but what was most important is that he was trusted. Every new President  can draw on a full, newly-replenished  account of trust, or at least could, in FDR’s time. A new President’s promises haven’t proven to be air; his political skills and talents, honesty and character have not shown themselves to be inadequate or a fraudulent pose.  In rare cases, and FDR was certainly one, they never do. The President, for good or ill, is the human face of the U.S. Government. If he is trusted, it is trusted.

If the President is not trusted, the government he heads is not going to be trusted, and for rational citizens, the converse is also true. Thus for President Obama to tell the nation this weekend that it must not panic or be fearful over the Ebola threat does not and cannot have the calming, steadying effect of Roosevelt’s speech more than 80 years ago. If anything, the opposite effect is likely. Repeatedly, throughout Obama’s years in office, the public has been assured that a serious problem was under control, only to discover that…

1. It was not…

2. His assurances of what would happen were either mistaken or false…

3. The spokespersons and agents of the President attempted to deny, confuse, or spin the facts…

4. No one was held accountable for the failure, at least until overwhelming criticism and threatened political consequences, and

5. Excuses, blame-shifting and historical revisionism took the place of lessons learned and improved command.

This is a six year pattern, and one that has accelerated and intensified in the past year. There has been no sign, none, that it is abating, or even comprehended by those engaging in it. The number one duty of an elected government in a democracy it to foster trust—in its honesty, its motives, its integrity and its competence. The Presidency of Barack Obama has failed that duty, and for the public to realize that its nation faces life-and-death problems under an untrustworthy government is, and should be, terrifying.

There is a lot more to fear than fear itself, and when the incompetence of the leader claiming otherwise is the primary source of the fear, it is he, not the public, that needs to change.

5 thoughts on “Ebola, Trust, Competence, and “The Only Thing We HaveTo Fear Is Fear Itself” Ethics

  1. A big part of the problem here, as you have often pointed out, Jack, is that Obama has a learning curve flatter than my eight-year-old niece’s. I would even submit that it goes a little farther: Obama does not appear to believe he makes mistakes, and as such, he has nothing to learn from. I do not know if that is actually his true belief, from six years of listening only to a very small cabal of advisors whose only concerns were getting re-elected and skating through without too many problems, or if in fact he is a presidential chameleon who changes his language and approach as needed to shift blame for whatever he needs to onto whoever he needs to to keep it away from himself. Given his recent throwing of the intelligence community under the bus wrt ISIS and his grasping at straws speech about hugging the Ebola nurses I am inclined to believe it is the latter.

    It’s been my experience in my life that most 2-term presidencies start going bad by the 6th year, it happened to Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush the younger, and it’s happening now (which leads me to believe that a 6-year non-reelectable term might be a good idea, but that’s a WHOLE other discussion). The difference here is that Nixon knew he had had it and resigned, and the other three all kept soldiering on as best they could. Only Reagan recovered enough that he was still considered an asset by his party as his term expired and he could “push for Bush,” but none of those three stopped trying to govern. Reagan continued to shepherd the Cold War to a successful conclusion, Clinton continued to actually govern rather than fund raise, although he hamstrung himself with the Lewinsky embarrassment, and Bush the younger ordered the surge.

    Obama has seen Israel and the PA go after each other, Putin start bullying his way west, our victory in Iraq not only fall apart but that collapse metastasize to Syria, Libya descend into chaos, cities turn into simmering cauldrons of race hate, partisan sniping that could turn into real tyranny (the Perry indictment, the Walker witch-hunt, and the Houston subpoenas) and now a deadly disease makes its way to our shores. His response was to ignore, then to dismiss, then to blame someone else when the problems couldn’t be ignored or dismissed any longer, then to jet off to yet another fundraiser where vacuous Hollywood starlets fell all over him like bobbysoxers welcoming the Fonz.

    His own party appears poised to lose any control of Congress, and it appears that he just doesn’t give a damn, confident that his celebrity power will carry the day. Even his allies in the media are starting to peel away and wonder how anyone in the White House can be this out of touch. No one can trust a leader who does not lead and appears to not even be aware of what’s going on in the country he’s charged with leading, leave alone the world at large.

    When last we threw around a discussion of the administration I think I said something about how the President’s chair can in fact be the loneliest chair in the world when facing a real crisis or consequential dilemma that yours is the final word on. Some of the men who sat in that chair no doubt had some sleepless nights thinking about tough decisions that there was no easy or popular answer to, Lincoln deciding to reinforce Fort Sumter, Truman deciding to drop the atomic bomb, Reagan deciding to walk away from the table at Rekyavijk rather than continue to let the Soviets negotiate in bad faith, but in the end they were strong men who made the decisions rather than blame someone else or look for an easy way out, and definitely didn’t go hobnob with celebrities or hit the links afterward or even in place of making them. That’s why in their day they weren’t always popular with those who were supposed to love them (especially Truman), but allies and foes alike respected them.

    Obama has moved from making decisions to having decisions made for him, to letting decisions make themselves, to running away from decisions altogether. There are still some few sectors that love him: the black community, because he is one of them and in the black community blackness trumps all, Hollywood, perhaps because he is the same type of vacuous person who is all about being at the right party with the right people, and the media, although even they are starting to slip away as they can no longer avoid the truth, but in the end no one can trust a leader who can’t hold the trust of other leaders nor of the everyman who forms the backbone of the nation he’s supposed to be leading. The loneliest chair is now the empty chair Clint Eastwood addressed.

  2. As Jack points out, this is a pattern that spans his entire presidency. In a real sense, it spans his entire life. This man doesn’t know how to make a decision based on reality instead of ideology. Nor can he truly contemplate concepts like honor and responsibility. There was nothing in his personal history that ever subjected him to such thoughts. He’s just being true to his twisted upbringing. Others in history have managed to rise above such beginnings. Obama has not. And he’s President of the United States. That renders him as dangerous to this nation as any foreign enemy has ever been.

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