Five years ago a young politician who seemed wise beyond his years was asked by Tim Russert what makes a great president. It was the kind of question that Russert, who could prompt more news in a single interview than entire cable operations do in a year, was so good at.
The politician took a thought breath before proceeding: “Obviously, most of the time it seems that the president has maybe 10 percent of his agenda set by himself, and 90 percent of it set by circumstance.”
Barack Obama: meet your 90 percent. The senator who so accurately predicted how events make the leader now finds himself a president trying to lead through those events.
In the process, despite a largely incoherent chorus of second-guessers, Obama has settled into a groove of reflective dithering before making his decisions. For the most part, it has served him well.
Think back to … oh, all of one week ago. The mercenaries of Muammar el-Qaddafi were closing in for the slaughter of people trying to take a breath of the same Arab Spring air going around Tunisia and Egypt.
Had Obama done nothing, as the Dennis Kucinich fringe Democrats and the Ron Paul isolationist Republicans would have it, the blood of many civilians would be filling the streets of Benghazi. Don’t forget: the regime had promised to chase its own citizens into closets and butcher them.
Or, had Obama put U.S. troops on the ground, as the imperious former Bush “diplomat” John Bolton insisted, a humanitarian mission would now be seen as another superpower invasion of an oil-rich Arab nation.
In his deliberative fashion, Obama ultimately saved countless lives in the short term, and will allow the rebels in Libya to own their revolution in the long term, if they can push ahead — a big if, of course. In the meantime, the economic and diplomatic noose will tighten around Qaddafi and the people he pays to kill on his behalf.
What Obama wanted to avoid, as he discussed during that same Russert interview, was the “messianic certainty” that led President George W. Bush to start a disastrous, trillion-dollar occupation of Iraq. In putting together an international coalition, backed by a United Nations resolution and the Arab League — all in record time — Obama also pulled off a nice bit of statecraft. And, had he used another day to reach out to Congress, there would be much less criticism at home.
Still, Republicans can’t cope with a president who tries to think before he leaps. Mitt Romney, who wakes most mornings in a groggy scramble to find his principles, faults Obama for the nuance of his Libya policy. How dare the president see shades of gray instead of black and white!
Newt Gingrich first criticized Obama for not imposing a no-fly zone, but now hits him for imposing a no-fly zone. You read that right. “I would not have intervened,” Gingrich said a few days ago. This followed a statement, barely two weeks ago, where he said he would intervene “this evening.” And he now calls the air strikes over Libya the worst foreign policy blunder in his lifetime.
Overstatement and misjudgment are Gingrich’s stock in trade — two reasons why he’ll never be president. He can always be counted on to fulminate on demand, with consistency the only casualty; the subject doesn’t matter.
The real problem for Republicans is that they are perplexed over what position to take on an issue that defies partisanship. So, Obama’s least-thoughtful critics attack him for thinking.
Ponderous deliberation, which doesn’t sit well in an age when we all move information with our thumbs, has been a hallmark of the Obama presidency from the beginning. His 90 percent of circumstances started on Inauguration Day, when Bush handed him the worse recession since the Great Depression, and continued through an oil spill that nearly poisoned an entire ecosystem.
During the spill, it was liberal cable pundits who wanted a president who could shout, emote and point fingers. Instead, he quickly negotiated a $20 billion escrow fund from BP that attempts to make whole those hurt by the spill. Similar success followed with the auto bailout, which saved General Motors, but cost Obama much of his early political capital.
There are certainly inconsistencies in the Obama approach to Libya. Why not help the protesters who are clubbed and jailed by our ally in Bahrain? “Why invade Iraq and not North Korea or Burma?” Obama asked in one of his books. “We can’t arbitrate a civil war,” he argued. As president, those questions are no longer Hyde Park parlor debates.
A poll just published by Reuters/Ipsos found 48 percent of respondents describing Obama’s military leadership as “cautious and consultative.” Another 36 percent chose “indecisive and dithering.”
I would argue that the combined 84 percent are basically saying the same thing — that this president is anything but impulsive. And next year, with an improving economy in a world where the United States is held in much higher regard, most people will probably choose a president who takes time to get it right, rather than one who is afraid to dither for a good outcome.
And from the comments section of the column:
First, I wish to remind those who criticize the “Ditherer in Chief” of what Nicholas Kristof wrote yesterday: “The world took three-and-a-half years to respond forcefully to the slaughter in Bosnia, and about three-and-a-half weeks to respond in Libya.” During that three-and-a-half long weeks — long if you’re on the ground in Benghazi — Obama Administration officials were mustering cooperation and putting together a true coalition unlike that punchline “Coalition of the Willing” of Dubya’s day. Secretary Clinton was prodding Arab states to go along with a military mission. Ambassador Rice was nudging her colleagues in the United Nations.
As for engaging Congress, Obama did speak with Congressional leaders before he left for Brazil. Evidently, they forgot. If he had it to do over, Obama might have pulled a Reagan. According to a top aide of Sen. Dick Lugar, Mark Helmke:
“Reagan was much different than Obama. Reagan invited the bipartisan leadership to the White House – Lugar as SFRC Chair – and told them planes were on their way to Libya for the sole mission of taking out Gadhafi, because of the intelligence that he had personally ordered the murder on a US soldier at a Berlin bar. Reagan said if anyone objected, he would order the planes turned around. No one, including [Sen. Robert] Byrd, objected.” [via Ben Smith of Politico]
Admittedly, a game of chicken is a gamble, and Obama isn’t given to stunts. Still, it was a darned good stunt. Who in Congress would have wanted to be the one to say, “Whoa, we really have to let Gaddafi slaughter his people, even though the world leadership overwhelmingly favors imposing a no-fly zone”? (Okay, Dennis Kucinich or Ron Paul, but it might have been a good idea not to invite either Kucinich or Paul to the meeting.)
Finally, try to imagine President McCain (or — the fates forbid — President Palin). The whiners would have been begging for a ditherer. Whatever McCain might have done, be assured it would not have been thought through and it would have been disastrous. McCain hasn’t been much better at making consistent statements about the Libyan situation than Gingrich has. Two years ago, McCain was meeting with Gaddafi & urging Congress to sell arms to Gaddafi. The other day, while he was on the teevee criticizing Obama for his Libyan policy, he was boasting of the good ol’ days when we were arming the Afghan mujahedeen, evidently forgetting that one of those we armed was Osama bin Laden. As for Gingrich, he long ago completely discredited himself as anything approaching a serious person. But don’t pick on Mitt Romney for trying to find his principles — he finds new ones every day!