Monthly Archives: March 2011

Fair and Balanced: Live Blogging the President’s Speech

What must Obama do in tonight’s speech?

Simply put, he needs to clarify the nation’s war aims in Libya and place that in the larger context of the situation in the Mideast.  His primary audience is not the partisans on either side, but the large portion of the public that wants to support the Libyan intervention, but are unsure of what is at stake there, and in the Mideast more generally.  In effect, he needs to lay out the  “Obama doctrine” when it comes to foreign intervention.

Interestingly, the President has opted not to deliver this message from the Oval Office – a good choice, in my view.  In previous Oval Office addresses he has not mastered the more intimate approach required of such speeches.  Look for him to stress the humanitarian aspect of the  Libyan intervention, and to emphasize the limited nature of the engagement.Look for him also to explain why this intervention was necessary, where other Mideast areas do not rise to the same level of concern.

I think he will steer clear of the debate re: whether he needs congressional authorization to engage militarily in Libya. This is not a topic that one can resolve in a 20-minute address.

In the end, the effectiveness of this speech will be determined by what happens on the ground – if, in fact, the military engagement is limited, and successful – which most Americans will define as removing Gaddafi – then it will be deemed an effective speech.  If events on the ground contradict his presentation, it will almost certainly be used against him by partisans on both sides.

An interesting backdrop to this speech is the mixed signals coming out of the Obama administration.  If you watched the Gates/Clinton dog and pony show on yesterday’s talk shows, you’ll recall that Gates practically admitted the U.S. had no strong national interest in Libya.  And Clinton basically acknowledged that our participation was in large part driven by a commitment to our NATO allies.

This is the dark side to Obama’s emphasis on multilateralism.   Supporters of the multilateral approach tend to argue that intervention becomes more legitimate when the U.S. has international support.  Less well understood, however, is that a true commitment to a multilateral foreign policy also means that we may get forced into engagements that we may not see as fully in our national interest.  That’s the other side of the multilateral coin.

Note that the President’s speech is at 7:30

We are watching the Fox feed (since I have Fox people with me!)

7:30  He’s at the National Defense University – that should provide a nice backdrop to the speech, and get him out of the Oval Office.

Ah, the flags!  Nice touch

The obligatory tribute to the troops – and in the context of noting the strategic objectives across the globe.

Note that he describes Libya in terms of “interests and values” – emphasis on values.

He’s pitching this primarily as a humanitarian reaction to Gaddafi’s crimes against his own people.  This is where it gets tricky – he notes that the U.S. goal is to get Gaddafi to step down – but how deeply is the U.S. committed to achieving this objective?

This is an interesting and I think useful effort to explain how we got involved in the first place, and how it led to the “historic” U.N. resolution.   This is a nice example of a president trying to use the presidency as a teaching tool.

So far he’s done the easy part – explaining what we stopped by intervening.  The question is how far we go to protect the rebels.

Note the “bipartisan consultation with Congress” – my guess is this was informing Congress more than consulting it.

Note also that in listing the “coalition of the willing” he includes the Arab nations – and how quickly the coalition came together.

And he’s sticking to the limited nature of the intervention.

Still hasn’t laid out the end game, however.

This is not going to satisfy those who wonder what the ultimate measure of success is – but he has made it clear we are stepping down – “transitioning” to NATO control.

A narrowly focused military mission – but will it achieve its goal of removing Gaddafi?

Did you miss it?  He simply skipped over this key issue…..interesting omission.

He rejects the two options of doing nothing, and intervening everywhere.  This is fine – but it still doesn’t answer what the end game in Libya is….. it appears that preventing the imminent slaughter of civilians was the goal – that’s the U.S. interest at stake here.  But it is going to leave him open to criticism that he’s not going far enough.

Ah, now he’s getting to the question – 20 minutes in.  Actively pursuing regimen change through non-military means – this is the crux of the issue.

Iraq looms large here – to be blunt:  he doesn’t want to go down that road.  But what about Afghanistan?  Why intervene there – this is not going to satisfy everyone.

He’s concluding with what might be called the Obama doctrine – never fear using military to protect the U.S.’s core interests.  That’s why we continue to fight in Afghanistan.

Evidently, Libya is not a threat to our safety, but it is a threat to our values.   This is an interesting argument – he’s trying to walk a very fine line here in arguing that as part of a international alliance on behalf of core values  intervention is ok, but not worth going alone – at least not for the sake of “values”.

Raises the question – if we are part of a coalition – how much leadership do we cede to the coalition?

I don’t think this speech in the end is going to satisfy those who want a more specific delineation  of how far we should go in pursuit of fundamental U.S. values.  It’s was a better speech in laying out why we got involved in the first place.

The final passage, with its soaring rhetoric, almost works against the message he is trying convey here – that this is a limited engagement.  It’s really a difficult message to sell – how we are a beacon of hope, but in the end we are not going to intervene beyond what we have already done in Libya.

Now for the talking head bit with Fox – back in a bit.

Ok, for the locals among you the talking head bit will be on at the 10 o’clock news.  (Channel 44). Let me know how it goes.

The reporter focused on what they saw as Obama evading/ignoring the question of how to define success in Libya – if Gaddafi remains in power and we see a stalemate, do we accept this, or is there a plan b that  involves greater military involvement?  And how does one reconcile the stirring rhetoric at the end with the enunciation of a doctrine that basically says we don’t intervene elsewhere without international support?

Summary: the best part of this speech, I thought, was Obama’s overview of how we got into Libya in the first place –  I thought it was a useful historical lesson. But the speech was much weaker regarding what constitutes “success” in Libya and what this means for intervention in the Mideast more generally.  He tried to walk a very fine line between the non-interventionists and the full interventionists, but the risk was that he pleased neither side.  Moreover, the soaring rhetoric at the end seemed inconsistent with his more nuanced argument suggesting that we will not support pro-democracy movement without strong international support for intervening.  In effect, Obama seemed to suggest that U.S. intervention is contingent on developing a multilateral coalition – but does that mean we intervene when other nations see it in their interest, even if it may not be in ours?

Let’s see how this plays out – what will the punditocracy say?  And was the general public even paying attention?

Oh, I almost forgot – what did you think?   Let me know….







The Difference Between Libya and Iraq: Obama is “Awesome”

Question: What’s the difference between Bush’s decision to attack Iraq and Obama’s to attack Libya?

Answer: Obama is “awesome”!

The President’s “awesomeness” notwithstanding, there’s been more than a little effort by pundits and partisans of both political persuasions to compare and contrast the two military actions.  Much of the punditocracy has criticized Obama’s “half-way” approach in Libya, in which he helped establish a NATO-led “no fly” zone, but ruled out introducing troops on the ground, and almost immediately begin ceding U.S. control over the air campaign to NATO allies. Interestingly, Obama’s decision has split both conservatives and liberals. Neoconservatives have excoriated the President for not going all in on behalf of the rebels, while more traditional conservatives are wondering why the U.S. is involved at all, given the lack of strategic interests in Libya. But not all the criticism comes from the Right; many on the Left oppose any U.S. intervention, while others favor a more aggressive military response.  Even some of the President’s staunchest supporters, like Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, are openly questioning Obama’s war aims:

“Clearly, it seems to me, there will be occasions when humanitarian military intervention is our duty. This may be one of them. But the goal must be to prevent the bloodbath, not just reschedule it. Even after his forces have been pummeled by U.S., French and British airstrikes, Gaddafi has his ragtag opponents outmanned and outgunned. Unless we explicitly take the side of the rebels — providing air support for their advances, for example — it is hard to imagine how they will ever be able to take much ground.”

In assessing Obama’s actions, it seems to me that comparisons with Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 aren’t particularly useful.  The better – although still imperfect – historical analogy is with George H. W. Bush’s action during the first Persian Gulf War. In August, 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait, ostensibly in retaliation for Kuwait’s decision to sell oil at prices that threatened to undercut Iraqi’s oil revenues.  With his forces completely occupying Kuwait, Hussein appeared poised to take Saudi Arabia next. Bush then made the decision to use military force, including U.S. ground forces, to drive Hussein out of Kuwait. He did so, he later wrote in his memoirs, for primarily moral reasons as opposed to strategic ones. As he debated his options during the course of two months “…I began moving from viewing Saddam’s aggression exclusively as a dangerous strategic threat and an injustice to its reversal as a moral crusade…His disdain for international law…his misrepresentation of what happened, his lies…all contributed, but perhaps it was hearing of the destruction of life in Kuwait which sealed the matter. I became very emotional about the atrocities.”

After securing both U.N. and a congressional resolution of support (the latter on a very close and highly partisan vote), the U.S. began a devastating air attack on Hussein’s force in mid-January, 1991, followed up several weeks later by a ground war that lasted barely 100 hours.  In that time much (but not all) of Hussein’s military force was destroyed and he was driven out of Kuwait, with a loss of less than 200 U.S. lives.

And yet, when Bush had the opportunity to move into Iraq and depose Hussein, he held back – a decision that was later much criticized, and which set the stage for the second Iraq war in 2003.  In his memoirs, Bush said he felt that occupying “Iraq would shatter our coalition, turning the whole Arab world against us, and make a broken tyrant into a latter-day Arab hero.”  He worried as well about the costs of occupying Iraq – a prescient concern, as it turns out.  Instead, as he noted in his diary at the time, he hoped the Iraqi people, led by the military, would take matters into their own hands and rise up against Hussein.  This never happened; despite abortive insurrections by the Shi’ites in the south and Kurds in the north, Hussein stayed in power for more than a decade, withstanding the imposition of an American-led no-fly zone, U.N.-led economic sanctions, and the partitioning of his country.

In considering the lessons, if any, that Obama can derive from the two Iraq wars in deciding how to approach Libya, one seems most obvious:  there are no risk-free options. The current approach provides no guarantee that Gaddafi won’t crush the rebellion, never mind forcing him from power.  Already the Arab League is beginning to voice discontent with the scope of the air attack, and the NATO alliance is squabbling over who is in charge of military strategy.  Of course, had he failed to intervene, or intervened more fully, it is likely that Obama would still have been criticized from both the Left and the Right. To date, he has followed the decisionmaking pattern he exhibited when deciding to escalate the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan: essentially splitting the difference between advisers by agreeing to “build up” militarily in order to “build down”.  In this case, the no-fly zone is designed to give the rebels breathing room, much as the troop buildup in Afghanistan was intended to allow the Afghans to develop their capacity to police their country.  In both cases, however, Obama made clear that there would be no open-ended U.S. military commitment.

In his weekly address today, Obama portrayed the action against Libya using words that are starkly reminiscent of how the first Bush characterized U.S. actions again Hussein in 1991: as a multilateral humanitarian effort, and as a reminder that the U.S., in partnership with its allies, will  oppose efforts by totalitarian regimes to commit atrocities against civilians.

The limited no-fly approach is a pragmatic, politically-prudent approach, one that , in theory, hews to the political center of the ideological spectrum – exactly where Obama feels most comfortable. But, as with Bush’s decision not to move against Hussein  in 1991, it is also one that runs the risk of pushing the ultimate resolution to the Libya problem down the road.  If Gaddafi remains in power a decade from now, will we be praising Obama for his prudence, or criticizing him for lacking “the vision thing”?

Friedman Weighs In On the “Passionless” President – But Is He Right?

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.  New York Times columnist Tom Friedman is once again lambasting President Obama for being too passive and failing to rally the public behind his legislative initiatives. In his latest column Friedman writes: “President Obama has the right convictions on all these issues, but he has not shown the courage of his convictions…If you listen to Obama, he eloquently describes our energy, climate and fiscal predicaments: how we have to end our addiction to oil and cut spending and raise revenues in an intelligent way that also invests in the future and doesn’t just slash and burn. But then the president won’t lead. When pressed on energy, he will say that he just doesn’t have the Republican votes for a serious clean energy policy. But the president has never gotten in the G.O.P.’s face on this issue. He has not put his own energy plan on the table and then gone out to the country and tried to sell it.”

Friedman continues: “On fiscal policy, the president has put forth a decent opening budget bid and has opted for the same inside game of letting Congress take the lead in forging a compromise with the G.O.P. that would bring spending under control and raise revenues. That inside game worked for the president in producing health care reform and the stimulus, but in those cases he had a Democratic majority to push through decent legislation. I fear this time he will not have the votes for the kind of serious, sensible, Simpson-Bowles-like budget cuts and tax increases we need — without his leading and enlisting the public in a much more aggressive way. …It is what a lot of Obama supporters find frustrating about him: They voted for Obama to change the polls not read the polls.”

Friedman’s complaint regarding Obama’s “passive” leadership approach is not original – I noted in my previous posts that it has become a recurring leitmotif among pundits, particularly those, like Friedman, who write generally from the Left. However, the idea that presidents can “sell” their policy to Congress by leveraging public opinion is one that has little-to-no empirical support among political scientists. It’s not for lack of trying: a number of scholars have sought to establish a link between a president’s public standing and their effectiveness in getting legislation through Congress.  More than three decades ago Sam Kernell, in his book Going Public, made the most cogent theoretical case for the idea that presidents can rally public opinion on behalf of their legislative program. Alas, Kernell rested much of his argument on Ronald Reagan’s presidency – particularly Reagan’s success in getting Congress, including a Democratically-controlled House, to pass his 1981 package of tax and spending cuts.  Upon closer inspection, however, it turns out that Reagan’s success in getting that legislation passed depended as much if not more on old-fashioned horse-trading with key members of Congress, rather than any speechmaking by the President.

With hindsight, it appears that Kernell was much more effective at documenting changes in presidents’ communication strategies than he was in showing that those changes had any impact on their legislative success.  Subsequent research has found that presidents’ efforts to “go public” on behalf of their legislative program are only marginally successful and then under only the most stringent conditions.  Indeed, most political scientists view the idea that presidents can go on national television to rally support for their legislation very much outdated (something Kernell acknowledges in the latest edition of his classic text).  In an era in which the media has increasingly fragmented into smaller and more opinionated news outlets (think of the change in your lifetime from the three major evening news broadcasts to the dozens of cable news programs), presidents are more likely to bypass national news media outlets altogether, and instead adopt a strategy of “going local” by targeting local newspapers and television stations.  However, the initial studies of this change in tactics suggest it too has proved to be of distinctly limited effectiveness.  As a case in point, one need only recall George W. Bush’s ultimately fruitless effort to barnstorm through 60 cities on behalf of social security reform in 2005. In his memoirs, Bush recalls laying out his “going local” strategy with Republican congressional leaders. The response?  “If you lead, we’ll be behind you…but we’ll be way behind you.”  And so they were.  Despite giving speeches, convening town halls, and even holding an event “with my favorite Social Security beneficiary, Mother” Bush’s legislation went nowhere in a Republican-controlled Congress.

Upon consideration, it is easy to see why, and to identify the weaknesses in Friedman’s reasoning more generally. First, the “going public/local” thesis presumes that presidents can affect their popular approval as measured, for example, by Gallup polls. But as Obama is discovering, this is not the case. Many pundits were convinced that his presidency had reached a turning point when the lame-duck 111th Congress passed several pieces of legislation shortly after the 2010 midterms.  In faact, as this chart shows, after a brief bump up in approval, his ratings have dropped down again closer to what they were prior to the midterms.   As I noted in an earlier post, they aren’t likely to go much higher than this, barring a significant uptick in the economy, until the 2012 presidential campaign is well underway, and voters began evaluating him in comparison to a single Republican opponent. At that point I expect to see his approval  ratings begin to climb.


(Interestingly, approval numbers for Congress have also begun to recede – I’ll deal with that in a separate post.)

Second, Friedman assumes those approval ratings are fungible, that is, that they can be converted into a currency of exchange acceptable to members of Congress. From this perspective, a popular presidency has surplus cash in the bank with which to “buy” congressional support. But members of Congress don’t really care what the president’s national poll numbers are – they are only interested in what their smaller geographic-based constituency in their state or House district thinks about the president’s stance on any particular issue.  And in most cases most of the time, most of the constituents aren’t paying attention, or have no strong opinion. And when constituents are paying attention, they are as likely to take their cues from their Representative or Senator as they are to listen to the President.  Keep in mind that members of Congress can “go public” as effectively with their constituents as can the president.  It is small wonder, then, that political scientist Jeff Cohen finds that president’s efforts to “go local” – that is, to target local media outlets as a way of ramping up support – have only modest effects in terms of improving media coverage of the president, never mind raising his poll numbers.

I understand that Friedman is not a political scientist; he is an opinion columnist whose job is to stake out a position to get people talking.  But it is important, given his rather large readership, that someone call him out when his opinion appears to contradict what political scientists think they know. I’m sure if passing energy and budget legislation were as simple as touring the country giving speeches and “getting in Republicans’ face” President Obama would already be doing that.  As it stands, however, there’s no reason why he should pay any attention to what Friedman writes on this score.

Tennis Anyone? March Madness Hits the White House

President Obama, a huge basketball fan, once again went on ESPN to fill out his NCAA Division I tournament bracket.  (He picked Duke, Ohio State, Kansas and Pittsburgh to reach the Final Four, with Kansas beating Ohio for the championship.)  Predictably, as we head into an election year, the political opposition took umbrage at Obama’s actions.  Potential Republican candidate Newt Gingrich typified the Republican response when he reportedly told the Washington Times: “Obama picking basketball teams may come to rival Jimmy Carter scheduling the tennis courts in the White House as a symbol of failing at big stuff and trivializing the presidency.”

Is Gingrich correct? Will Obama go down in history as the President who dribbled while Japan burned?

Presidents, of course, have always jumped at the opportunity to demonstrate that they can kick back and enjoy sports, just like Joe and Jane Six Pack. Richard Nixon, also a huge sports fan, once spent an entire (well publicized) day picking his all-time baseball team.  Bill Clinton was a dyed-in-wool Arkansas basketball fan who attended Razorback NCAA tournament games.

Of course, given recent events in Japan and in the Mideast – and because we are well into the silly season of elections – it was inevitable that Obama’s participation in March Madness this year would draw partisan criticism.  It was in part to blunt this that he began his ESPN presentation by urging viewers to contribute to the Japan relief fund.

What I found most interesting about the reaction to Obama’s ESPN, however, is Gingrich’s allusion to Jimmy Carter scheduling the White House tennis courts, particular in light of my last post based on Jim Fallows’ famous 1979 article “The Passionless Presidency”.

In fact, it was Fallows’ article – and Carter’s response to it – that permanently elevated the tennis court story into what has become a lasting metaphor for Carter’s tendency to immerse himself in trivial detail, at the expense of the big picture.  In the May (published in April) 1979 Atlantic Monthly article Fallows wrote: “Carter came into office determined to set a rational plan for his time, but soon showed in practice that he was still the detail-man used to running his own warehouse, the perfectionist accustomed to thinking that to do a job right you must do it yourself. He would leave for a weekend at Camp David laden with thick briefing books, would pore over budget tables to check the arithmetic, and, during his first six months in office, would personally review all requests to use the White House tennis court.”  Fallows noted that he knew Carter was approving court use because, as a former collegiate tennis player, Fallows would send in personal requests to use the White House courts, and he would receive his answer, via a checked box (yes or  no) from President Carter.

As I noted in my previous post, Fallows’ two-part Atlantic Monthly article created a minor news sensation at the time both for the criticisms he raised about his former boss as well as the propriety of a recent employee writing a “kiss and tell” article so soon after stepping down.  (Never mind that the article was in many respects actually quite effusive in its praise of Carter – as Hamilton Jordan noted in his draft response to Fallows, the overall fallout from it severely hurt Carter’s public image.)

Interestingly, however, as Fallows notes, he wasn’t the first to raise the tennis court issue with Carter.  A few months before, during a one-on-one interview with President Carter on his PBS show, Bill Moyers also addressed the issue:

MR. MOYERS. You were criticized, I know, talking about details, for keeping the log yourself of who could use the White House tennis courts. Are you still doing that?

THE PRESIDENT. No—and never have, by the way.

MR. MOYERS. Was that a false report?

THE PRESIDENT. Yes, it was.

It was inevitable, then, that when Fallows’ article came out in April, 1979, the media would try to resolve the apparent contradiction between Carter’s response to Moyers and Fallows’ claim.  They got their chance soon enough, when Carter held a press conference on April 30, 1979 to discuss his energy plan. The exchange went like this:

“Q. Mr. President, how do you respond to the statements by Jim Fallows, who was your chief speechwriter for more than 2 years, on a number of things, but specifically that while you hold specific positions on a number of individual issues, that you have no broad, overall philosophy about where you’d like to see the country go? And on another point, Fallows says that you signed off personally on the use of the White House tennis courts, but you told Bill Moyers that you didn’t. What’s the truth about that?

THE PRESIDENT. Let me say, first of all, that I think Jim Fallows is a fine young man. And he didn’t express these concerns to me while he was employed by us. This is the kind of question that has to be faced by any President when someone leaves the White House. It’s happened many times in the past.

Jim Fallows and I agree on most things. His assessment of my character and performance is one of those things on which we don’t agree— [laughter] —and this is unfortunate, but understandable. He left the White House employment with a very good spirit of friendship between me and him, and with no insinuation that there were things about which he was disappointed.

The White House tennis court: I have never personally monitored who used or did not use the White House tennis court. I have let my secretary, Susan Clough, receive requests from members of the White House staff who wanted to use the tennis court at certain times, so that more than one person would not want to use the same tennis court simultaneously, unless they were either on opposite sides of the net or engaged in a doubles contest.”

This is media-speak for a “non denial-denial”.  Clearly, Carter had walked back from the strong assertion he made to Moyers that the story was simply false, although he still refused to acknowledge that he personally approved who played on the White House tennis courts.  Even this revised version, however, was not the complete truth.  In fact, as this memo from the Carter Library shows, Carter did instruct his aide (and cousin) Hugh Carter very early on his presidency that use of the White House swimming pool and tennis courts would be restricted to immediate family members, but that “staff and cabinet can – on occasion – request use from me.”

And, as Fallows noted, he was one of the staff members who made those requests – here’s a memo from him to Carter dated February 27, 1977, in which Fallows allows that “The only perquisite of office that I care about at all is the White House tennis court.” He then goes on to make a request to use the court.  (I can’t tell from the archival record how Carter responded in this instance, but Fallows indicates in his Atlantic article the he did get permission on some occasions.)

So, is Obama destined to suffer Carter’s fate, with the basketball court substituting for the tennis court? It’s doubtful.  The tennis court incident came to symbolize Carter’s presidency because it was an accurate short-hand for his leadership style.  He did tend, particularly early in his presidency, to micromanage excessively – it takes but a week in the archives to realize just how detailed-obsessed he could be.  (This included, for example, correcting his staff’s grammar on their written memos!)

While partisans may carp about Obama’s foray into the world of March Madness, my guess is that most Americans care more about whether they win their own pool or not than they do about the President taking time out to have some fun.  And few Americans will begrudge the President the opportunity to indulge one of his favorite passions.  Still, if I was the President, I might delegate responsibility for playing on the White House basketball court to someone else.

The Passionless Presidency?

A former White House speechwriter writes this about the President:

“Sixteen months into his Administration, there was a mystery to be explained about [him]: the contrast between the promise and popularity of his first months in office and the disappointment so widely felt later on. Part of this had to do with the inevitable end of the presidential honeymoon, with the unenviable circumstances [he] inherited, with the fickleness of the press. …His positions are correct, his values sound. Like Marshal Petain after the fall of France, he has offered his person to the nation. This is not an inconsiderable gift; his performance in office shows us why it’s not enough.

After two and a half years in [his] service, I fully believe him to be a good man. With his moral virtues and his intellectual skills, he is perhaps as admirable a human being as has ever held the job. He is probably smarter, in the College Board sense, than any other President in this century. He grasps issues quickly. He made me feel confident that…he would resolve technical questions lucidly, without distortions imposed by cant or imperfect comprehension.

He is a stable, personally confident man, whose quirks are few. Apart from occasional profanity, I saw him form no argument and strike no pose that would make him look a hypocrite if publicly revealed. …[He] is usually patient, less vindictive than the political norm, blessed with a sense of perspective about the chanciness of life and the transience of its glories and pursuits. I left his service feeling that if moral choices faced him, he would resolve them fairly, that when questions of life and death, of nuclear war and human destruction were laid upon his desk, he would act on them calmly, with self-knowledge, free of interior demons that might tempt him to act rashly or to prove at terrible cost that he was a man. One factor in our choice of Presidents is their soundness in the ultimate moments of decision, when the finger is poised over the button and the future of the race is stake. Of all contenders on the horizon, none would be saner or surer than [he] in those moments. In his ability to do justice case by case, he would be the ideal non-lawyer for the Supreme Court; if I had to choose one politician to sit at the Pearly Gates and pass judgment on my soul, [he] would be the one.

But if he has the gift of virtue, there are other gifts he lacks.

One is sophistication. It soon became clear, in ways I shall explain, that he and those closest to him  took office in profound ignorance of their jobs. They were ignorant of the possibilities and the most likely pitfalls. They fell prey to predictable dangers and squandered precious time.

The second is the ability to explain his goals and thereby to offer an object for loyalty larger than himself.

The third, and most important, is the passion to convert himself from a good man into an effective one, to learn how to do the job. [He] often seemed more concerned with taking the correct position than with learning how to turn that position into results. He seethed with frustration when plans were rejected, but felt no compulsion to do better next time. He did not devour history for its lessons, surround himself with people who could do what he could not, or learn from others that fire was painful before he plunged his hand into the flame.”

I worked for him enthusiastically and was proud to join his Administration, for I felt that he, alone among candidates, might look past the tired formulas of left and right and offer something new. These early hopes impose a special burden of explanation on people like me; before we find fault, we must explain why we thought things would be different. [He] had no experience in Washington or in foreign affairs; to blame him for that now seems somehow unfair. ..But there were two factors that made many of us ignore these paper limitations. One was [his] remarkable charm in face-to-face encounters. All politicians must be charming to some degree, but his performance on first intimate meeting was something special. His intelligence and magnetism soon banished thoughts of the limits of his background. When working at the White House, I often felt persuaded by [his] argument—and, even more, of his personal merit—while talking with him, although I knew, on reflection, that his argument was wrong. This was not simply the malleability of a young employee; I met very few people who, having sat and talked with [him] by themselves or in groups of two or three, did not come away feeling they had dealt with a formidable man.

The other factor was a subtler thing, though clearly visible in retrospect. I always thought [he] was awkward at the deliberate manipulation of symbols, but he was a genius at using a phrase, a gesture, a code word that his listeners assumed to be of greater significance than it was. He led call-and-response like a preacher in a black church; he talked with environmentalists about the sins of the Corps of Engineers; he told the American legion about his family’s [history]; and he told everyone in back-room meetings that, while he could not promise a single appointment to a single person, “I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the choices I make,” and “I think you’ll agree with what I do 95 percent of the time.” Espying these chunks in the water, each onlooker viewed them as tips of icebergs, indicating vast, hidden extensions below.

I realize now how people were led on by these hints… .; I was led on myself by the hope that [he] might make sense of the swirl of liberal and conservative sentiment then muddying the political orthodoxy… I do not particularly admire people who can say, as Jack Valenti did in his silly book A Very Human President, that “working on the White House staff is the ultimate seduction,” but I came to think that emotion of that sort might be a necessary ingredient for getting the job done. There was so little of that glimmer and drive in this White House that I began to realize that the absence of passion was as serious a weakness as the lack of sophistication.

I started to wonder about the difference between a good man and an inspiring one; about why [this President], who would surely outshine most other leaders in the judgment of the Lord, had such trouble generating excitement, not only in the nation but even among the members of his own staff. One explanation is that [he] has not given us an idea to follow. The central idea of [this] Administration is [the President] himself, his own mixture of traits, since the only thing that finally gives coherence to the items of his creed is that he happens to believe them all.”

To many of you – particularly those who most strongly supported President Obama during the 2008 campaign – these observations by the White House speech writer likely ring true.  Except this is not a description of Obama – it is of President Jimmy Carter.  The excerpt is from the first part of two-part 1979 Atlantic Monthly article, written by Carter’s former speechwriter James Fallows, titled “The Passionless Presidency.”  (This article is well worth reading in full.) Fallows’ assessment caused no little stir among the punditocracy and within the White House itself.  Indeed, the media fallout led to an exchange of letters between Fallows and Carter’s chief of staff Hamilton Jordan (although I can’t be sure from the archives whether Jordan ever sent his response) – an exchange prompted in part by a column by New York Times journalist Scotty Reston alleging that Fallows, in writing his critique, had broken a promise to Carter not to criticize the President.  In his letter to Jordan, Fallows defends his action, saying he was writing as a journalist. Jordan, while acknowledging his friendship with Fallows, points out that the article “had hurt the President among thoughtful people in this city and country.”

I was reminded of Fallows’ article when I ran across his exchange with Jordan during my recent time rummaging through archives at the Carter Library.  As you can see, his criticism of Carter’s presidency mirrors in important respects what many pundits are now saying about Obama, particular in light of recent events, most notably the failure – so far – to intervene in Libya and the decision to keep open the Guantanamo Bay prison – the infamous international symbol of his predecessor’s War on Terror.  What happened to hope and change?  That disappointment is captured in today’s New York Times column by David Brooks.  He writes: “The campaign of 2008 was marked by soaring calls for transformation. Now the administration spends much of its time reacting to events and counseling restraint.”  Brooks finds this all the more troubling because it seems so at odds with the leadership style – one he likens to JFK’s “seize the moment” approach – that Obama embraced during his first months in office.  Now, Brooks complains, Obama seems more like Eisenhower – a prudent, cautious president.

“On Friday” Brooks writes, “President Obama gave a press conference that perfectly captured his current phase. He acknowledged rising gas prices but had no new energy policy to announce. On Libya, he emphasized the need to deliberate carefully our steps ahead but had no road map to propose. On the federal budget fight, he spoke passionately about the need to reach a compromise. But when given the chance to talk about what it might look like, he rose above the fray and vaguely counseled balance and moderation.”

Brooks concludes – shades of Fallows! – “Now I’d say his worrying flaw is passivity. I have no confidence that I can predict what sort of person Obama will be as he runs for re-election in 2012.”

Brooks’ uncertainty regarding what kind of leadership to expect from Obama echoes the frustration felt by many – particularly those on the Left who most strongly supported the President during the 2008 election.  In almost every respect – from keeping Gitmo open to the use of military commissions to try suspected terrorists to expanding the troop presence in Afghanistan he has adopted or extended tactics developed by his predecessor for the War on Terror.  Domestically it is much the same – most recently Obama signed on to an extension of the Bush tax cuts, after promising to end them for  high income earners, and he is actively seeking budget cuts to reduce the deficit.  And when he has pushed major policy innovations – health care reform (a sop to the insurance industry!), the job stimulus bill (too small to make an impact!) – they have fallen far short of what many consider to be “real change”.

For Brooks and many others, Obama’s “prudent” leadership style is not just disappointing – it is also surprising.  But it shouldn’t be.  In December, 2008, I posted a comment titled “Obama the Centrist” that criticized the Left’s surprise with Obama’s initial appointments, which they deemed too moderate.

My response was that, in fact, this was precisely what we should expect from Obama.  Rather than change, his pre-presidential political career demonstrated a lawyer’s concern for proceeding cautiously, for splitting differences and building consensus.  He was a process-oriented leader, not a visionary.  Rather than a fixed set of convictions, his policy choices would reflect a weaving together of options put forward by others.  I concluded: “So we probably shouldn’t be surprised that his initial appointments seem to emphasize competence and continuity more than progressive change.  Indeed, the real surprise would have been if he veered away from the style that proved so successful in his political life to date.”

More than two years later I have seen nothing that would lead me to change that assessment. Indeed, when my students ask me what has proved so surprising about Obama’s presidency, I invariably reply “The most surprising aspect is just how unsurprising it has been.”  He has governed almost precisely as one should have expected him to.  What has changed in the intervening two years is not Obama’s leadership style or his vision of government – it is our own yardstick of evaluation.   Traits that once seemed appealing – his calm demeanor, his pragmatism, his intellectualism – are now viewed by many former supporters as character defects; Obama possesses no vision! He is overly intellectual! He lacks emotion! He is – gulp! – a passive president!  The very qualities that appeared so appealing on the campaign trail, particularly in contrast to his predecessor’s seemingly impulsive, emotion-driven decisiveness, are now viewed as weaknesses.

We should not be surprised by this. Obama won election largely by telling us what he was not.  It allowed us to impute beliefs and a leadership style to him that likely never existed.  This is not unusual – in fact, it is the same dynamic that informed Fallows’ critique of Carter more than three decades ago.  And it says more about our ability to infuse a president with our own vision of what he will do in office than it does about any realistic assessment of what he can hope to accomplish.

Brooks may be uncertain regarding the type of leadership we can expect from Obama from here on out.  But I am not.  He will lead as he always has: by splitting differences, proceeding cautiously, reacting to events rather than provoking them and choosing policies from a menu largely written by others. It is a leadership style that many find reassuring. Others deem it disappointing.  No one, however, should find it surprising.