What is presidential leadership?
I think it is this. Almost all presidents reach a point when they are faced with choosing among unpalatable alternatives under conditions of great uncertainty and with potentially great consequences, both for their own political future but also for the nation. It is at these times that presidents must decide: what are my core beliefs – my bedrock principles that help me decide when there are no good choices and no sure outcomes? What sustains me when events go wrong – when I am surrounded by doubt and there is no consensus on what to do? What am I about?
This is the essence of leadership: defining those values on which one is willing to stake one’s presidency. For Lincoln, it was to preserve the Union. Franklin Roosevelt believed government could protect citizens against capitalism’s worst excesses. Reagan sought to restore Americans’ faith in traditional values of individualism, small government and free enterprise at home, and defend against communism abroad. Again and again, when offered opportunities to back away from these fundamental beliefs, these presidents refused to do so, even when it cost them politically.
What defines Obama? To this point I don’t think anyone knows – including him. He won the presidency largely by saying what he was not, and that he represented change – but change to what? As president he has faced policy choices of immense complexity and significance – a deep economic recession, historic health care reform, an unprecedented oil spill – but none of these have as yet forced him to define his presidency in terms of articulating core beliefs. Instead, the dominant characteristic of his response to these issues is political pragmatism – choosing policy responses primarily on the basis of what he believed possible, as opposed to what he aspired to do. If national politics was a courtroom, Obama’s preferred approach has been to settle rather than go to trial. His solutions are not based on ideology – there is no right or wrong, no guilty or innocent – there is only a dollar figure. Politics, to Obama, is the art of closing the deal – not choosing sides.
The virtue of this approach is that he has accomplished a great deal. Congress passed an $800 billion stimulus bill. It enacted health insurance reform. BP has agreed to establish a $20 billion escrow fund. We are on the cusp of reforming financial regulation. These are important accomplishments whose significance should not be diminished. But they are accomplishments in which Obama chose from a menu of alternatives largely drawn up by others, and when there existed a consensus – not always a strong one, to be sure – to move in a particular direction. Under these circumstances, Obama’s job has been to sound out the litigants, see who was willing to cut a deal, and negotiate the final price.
This lawyer-like approach, I think, is about to be tested in Afghanistan in a way that no other issue has tested it to date. The reason is that there are no good options there, there is no certain outcome associated with any single option and thus there is nothing remotely resembling a consensus pushing in a particular direction. Progressives think it is the wrong war and are agitating for a complete withdrawal. Conservatives want Obama to come out and state what they see as both strategically preferable and inevitable: that circumstances come July may dictate a troop increase, not a drawdown, and that no bets are off the table. The public, unsure, waits for some sign of success while fearing the cost of staying.
That is why I believe Obama’s decision to fire McChrystal is so potentially revealing – not because it signaled that he was “in charge” (as Martin’s comments imply, by overreacting to a perceived slight it may in fact signal just the opposite). Rather, it is potentially significant (and I stress potentially) because it may force Obama to begin confronting the inherent tension in his politically pragmatic but ultimately untenable decision made last December to build up the American military presence in Afghanistan so that we could draw it down 18 months later. By coupling the firing of McChrystal with a strongly-worded recommitment to the counterinsurgency policy McChrystal championed, Obama has made it that much harder, come next July, to begin that drawdown if the counterinsurgency goals – giving the Afghans the time to develop the capability to govern themselves and to prevent that country from providing a haven for terrorists – do not yet appear in reach. As I noted in my comments during his speech announcing McChrystal’s resignation, Obama had doubled down on McChrystal’s strategy, making it in essence his war.
Is this the first step toward defining his presidency? Note his recent statement that “We didn’t say we’d be switching off the lights and closing the door behind us” come next July and that instead this date is best viewed as the time to begin transfering responsibility to Afghan forces. This is the first signal from him that U.S. military forces may remain in significant numbers long past the July 2011 drawdown date. But it is not the first such indication from his administration; just last week General Petraeus expressed a similar sentiment in his Senate testimony, and he will almost certainly repeat that refrain during his confirmation hearing this Tuesday. It will be interesting to see how far he is willing to go in public to push Obama toward stepping back from the drawdown date.
It is unclear to me, based on Obama’s comments during the McChrystal firing, whether he is deciding what he wants to do in Afghanistan, or that he continues to make policy by combining elements from others’ preferred options. Whatever the McChrystal decisions portends, I see no good reason for Obama to publicly clarify his war aims until after the November midterms. That is why, after all, he scheduled the first review of the counterinsurgency effort for December, when there will have been enough time to begin evaluating the COIN strategy and, not incidentally, when the political landscape will be better defined.
I do believe, however, that the run-up to December, and then the July drawdown date, offers an opportunity for Obama to elucidate – in his own mind – what his presidency is about. He may as Tom Ricks suggests here, use the July deadline to say “I tried the surge. It didn’t work. We are leaving.”
In this respect, these deadlines offer an opportunity to lead – but it does not mean he will do so. For all the talk about Obama’s “Truman moment” in sacking McChrystal we forget that Truman’s firing of MacArthur did nothing to bring the Korean War to a resolution. Indeed, Truman’s “take charge” moment obscures the more important failure of his Korean policy: that he allowed his war aims, which initially centered on re-securing the 38th parallel as the boundary between North and South Korea, to expand in the first heady days after MacArthur’s Inchon landing. That prompted the Chinese counterattack, and led to the stalemate that persisted until Truman left office as one of the least popular presidents in the modern era.
Let me be clear: to define one’s presidency as I suggest Obama must do is no guarantee of success. Bush’s embrace of the surge did not, as yet, guarantee peace and stability in Iraq. Nor did it secure, as yet, his historical standing. We honor Lincoln for his single-minded commitment to saving the Union, but without military victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg we very likely would be debating President McClellan’s choice to seek a negotiated peace with the South after 1864.
No one can predict what will happen if we abandon Afghanistan – nor if we build up our military presence there. There is surely risk in either option. The greater risk, however, is not to choose. By taking that route – by continuing to seek the settlement point rather than go to trial, Obama risks having his choices in Afghanistan determined by others: his military commanders, Hamid Karzai, the Pashtun, the Pakistanis, the progressive wing of the Democratic party and, not least, the American public. The danger in the strategy of pragmatism is that Obama will continue to do just enough not to lose Afghanistan, but not enough to win there – if winning is possible. It was precisely this politically pragmatic strategy adopted by LBJ that led to disaster in Vietnam.
In what does Obama believe? What is the essence of his presidency? At this point, it’s McChrystal clear.