No Shock and Awe in Philadelphia

The presidency of the United States has often been described as the most powerful job in the world, but that is arguably the most misleading job title in the world.

While it is certainly true that the president is commander-in-chief of the most powerful armed forces in the world and heads the most important economy in the world, it often seems that the job is also the most worrying and frustrating in the world.

Regarding the economy, it is debatable how much blame or credit a president should take for economic factors largely outside his control. Social legislation isn’t necessarily any easier. Think of the trials undergone by President Barack Obama before his health-care program was finally passed, and with heavy modifications, followed by nearly fatal digital errors. Gun control is another issue over which the president has little control.

As for the awesome military power he wields, the opportunities for wielding it are ever circumscribed by myriad political, moral and economic considerations. Indeed, for the most part, Obama has focused not on the use but on the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from such places as Iraq and Afghanistan. Gun control of another kind.

Yet that has not spared him from criticism over civilian casualties caused by drone aircraft, and the failure to close down the detention center in Guantanamo. Moreover, the president’s inability to solve the crises in Syria, Ukraine and the Arab-Israel conflict has likewise provided a bottomless reservoir of frustration. Not to mention the sudden implosion of Iraq that must be a nightmare for the occupant of the nice white house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

So it must have been gratifying for President Barack Obama to see the headlines this week proclaiming his successful intervention in the commuter rail strike in Philadelphia. With one bold executive stroke, he brought relief to the commuters who depend on the 13 regional rail lines shut down by the strike.

“That’s it. The strike is over,” said Arthur Davidson, spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, one of the two unions on strike. Davidson spoke shortly after President Obama gave the word, putting the chaos on hold just hours after 440 engineers and electricians walked off the job.

In this case, presidential power was everything it’s cracked up to be. By deciding to establish an emergency board to force the two sides to negotiate, Obama made it possible for his fellow Americans in the Philadelphia area to go on with life as usual — at least for the next 240 days of the negotiation period during which the workers will be prevented from striking.

A tidy success. No collateral damage from air strikes was reported, no human rights groups protested, no Netanyahu or Abbas to cajole or placate; no need to send John Kerry to Philadelphia to browbeat the natives. Even the Republicans were happy; in fact, it was Republican Governor of Pennsylvania Tom Corbett who asked Obama to intervene.

Of course, there are slight differences between the labor dispute in Philadelphia and the various crises in domestic and foreign policy which must make the president at least occasionally long for a quiet train ride to a boring job in the city.

Unlike the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers will play ball with Washington. A partner for peace, to borrow a phrase. The kind of people you can sit down with around a table and negotiate pension fund issues with for 240 days. And if things get hot and heads must roll, they will only roll figuratively.

In other words, much of the credit belongs to the union leaders who agreed to put off the disruptions a strike would have caused. It wasn’t President Obama’s powers of persuasion or the might of the Pentagon that shocked or awed them into peace talks. It was their respect for the office of the presidency and their willingness to abide by the rule of law.

At a time when much of the national conversation is about partisanship and divisiveness, it is worth contemplating. It reminds us of how thankful we should be to live in a society which allows for such a civilized response to problems.

Sometimes shock and awe is necessary. Fortunately, in Philadelphia it wasn’t.