Suppose for a moment that a large swell had hit the USS Bainbridge just as the three Navy SEALs were squeezing off their shots at the Somali pirates’ heads, making one of the bullets go awry. The surviving pirate surely would have killed Capt. Richard Phillips. Back in the U.S., those with a dim view of Barack Obama would brand the attempted rescue a “fiasco,” betraying Obama’s fecklessness and lack of inner steel. As it happens, the SEALs’ aim was true. So this week, some pundits are lauding Capt. Phillips’ rescue as a demonstration of the president’s competence and coolness. I hate to spoil the fun, but it’s a bit unserious, don’t you think, for either critics or admirers to judge a president on the basis of a sharpshooter’s aim?
But this spasm of instant judgment—this macroanalysis of micro events—is now standard operating procedure for a punditocracy that must reach definitive historical verdicts every four hours. The vagaries of the economy, the internal dynamics of distant nations, even the sexual behavior of teenagers (that’s a shout out to you, Bill Clinton!) are seen as direct manifestations of White House policy, as if presidents were demigods with unbounded influence on the world of mortals. Is the stock market down a few hundred points? Obviously, investors are taking a dim view of Obama’s economic rescue plan. What’s that—the market’s back up a few hundred points? Clearly, Obama’s brilliant plan is working. Presidents, of course, are very powerful men, but men they remain, and much of what happens in this infinitely complex world is beyond their control. It’s so much simpler, though, and more entertaining, to pretend otherwise.