The Substitute Teacher

Well, I thought I had pretty much plumbed the depths of the current round of punditocratic carping about Obama’s leadership deficiencies–you know, he’s not LBJ, he’s not Ronald Reagan, he’s not Bill Clinton, he’s not Green Lantern. But now here’s Ruth Marcus with what I devoutly hope is the bottom of this particular barrel:

Middle schoolers are a boisterous bunch, swayed by emotions and not always acting logically. Sound like certain countries — or certain legislative bodies? They require understanding but also discipline, with enforced consequences for behaving inappropriately.

Oh, God. Please tell me you aren’t about to call the President of the United States a bad schoolteacher!

Think of the no-nonsense veteran teacher who announces at the start of the year that she brooks no misbehavior and marks down for misspellings. She is the teacher who kids grumble about but who ends up being their most lasting influence.

But then it gets worse:

Obama, on Syria and the sequester, risks becoming instead the hapless substitute, pelted by spitballs. Having drawn a red line, he is now busy blurring it, mumbling about establishing a “chain of custody.” By “game-changer,” he said at Tuesday’s news conference, “I mean that we would have to rethink the range of options that are available to us.” Oooh, ooh, I’m scared now.

Might as well follow this ludicrous analogy to the bitter end:

The president is correct that there are risks in acting too rashly as well as too late, in intervening without international buy-in. He will be criticized for holding back, then questioned for choosing to act.

The difficulty is that, if you’re the kid in the back of the class — Iran or North Korea — waiting to see what the teacher might do, you’re thinking, I don’t need to worry about this guy. He’ll back down in the end. Every middle school teacher knows: Without enforced limits, the hooligans — in Congress and abroad — end up emboldened, not chastened.

So there you are. Maybe next time we’re looking for a president, we’ll consider a retired Drill Instructor who’s teaching at the Sit-Down-and-Shut-Up Charter School For Disciplined Learning. That’ll be a president who may be unpopular for a while, but will later be tearfully remembered as the Mr. Chips of domestic politics and global diplomacy.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.