Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
September 13, 2012
WAR/POLITICS: Barack Obama's Passivity in Crisis
If there is one common theme about Barack Obama's leadership style in a crisis that runs throughout his time on the national stage and is evident yet again in his response to the attacks in Cairo and Benghazi, it is passivity. Obama has shown, time and again, that he prefers to sit back, keep his distance and see what other people do first before he says or does anything. This is not an entirely bad trait - smoking out what everyone else at the table is thinking is an effective way to play poker, and there are times when doing nothing or being a follower is the wiser course. It has certainly paid him political dividends in situations where his opponents overextended themselves. But what it also clearly demonstrates is that vigorous public leadership - getting out in front and rallying the public to take some action that was not already widely supported - is above his pay grade.
Rudy Giuliani nailed this point in his 2008 convention speech, noting Obama's response to the Russian invasion of Georgia and connecting it to Obama's habit of voting "present" as a State Senator (Obama had rather famously coasted through his tenure as a State Senator, gaining most of his successful bill sponsorships from having his name added late to things on which other people had carried the load.):
When Russia rolled over Georgia, John McCain immediately established a very strong, informed position that let the world know how he'll respond as president at exactly the right time. Remember his words? Remember what John McCain said? "We are all Georgians."
Look at how this leadership style played out in the 2008 financial crisis. As I noted at the time, while scores of other people in both parties - George W. Bush, Henry Paulson, Ben Bernanke, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Eric Cantor - flew into a whirl of activity and staked out difficult positions and John McCain (foolishly) suspended his campaign to offer his assistance, Obama sat back, took no active part in events or in leading his own party, and collected the political winnings while the public turned on everyone involved. Obama stated in public that "what I've told the leadership in Congress is that, if I can be helpful, then I am prepared to be anywhere, anytime"; nobody ever called him.
In 2009, military commanders pressed Obama for more troops in Afghanistan, stressing that this was critical to their mission. Obama kept putting off the decision, letting months go by before he committed to a troop surge. But as we now know, Obama never intended to follow through in actually seeing the Afghan war to a victorious conclusion, and never even set concrete war aims. By the time of last week's convention speech, Obama was reduced to arguing that "[w]e've blunted the Taliban's momentum in Afghanistan," which is not exactly "veni, vidi, vici."
Meanwhile, the fall of 2009 also saw the outbreak of popular protest in Iran, the unsuccessful "Green Revolution." Obama was famously slow to offer even tepid public support for the pro-democracy, anti-mullah protests, and eventually turned down a request for help from its leaders. He preferred not to get involved.
Then we had 2010's BP oil spill. This time, decisive leadership at the top was clearly needed. But again, Obama was passive. The federal bureaucracy moved sluggishly, bereft of direction from Obama. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal was out in front on the local response, but faced delays as the Administration dragged its feet. Public anger again turned first on BP, but this time, voters noticed that Obama wasn't reacting like a leader, contributing to his falling job approval ratings.
Obama has rarely been out in front of the response to domestic natural disasters, from his arms-length response to 2009's ice storms in Kentucky to belatedly visiting New Orleans, after Mitt Romney, following Hurricane Isaac last month.
He has similarly often remained aloof from the kind of arm-twisting on Capitol Hill that is generally associated with party leadership, an unusual trait for a president who came from the Senate; many accounts from Beltway insiders attest to the fact that Obama doesn't spend much time with his own caucus, leaving the heavy lifting of keeping the party in line to Pelosi and Reid. As the New York Times describes Bob Woodward's account of Obama's legislative leadership style in his latest book:
Many aspects of this book's portrait of Mr. Obama echo reports from other journalists and Washington insiders: a president who has not spent a lot of time cultivating relationships with members of Congress, Republican or Democrat, and who has similarly distant (if not downright tense) relationships with business executives; an idealistic but sometimes naive and overconfident chief executive with little managerial experience and little understanding of the horse-trading and deal-making that make Washington run (skills that, say, Lyndon B. Johnson possessed in spades).
When the "Arab Spring" came to Egypt, Obama was conflicted, remaining silent during much of the protests but eventually, at the end, pressuring Hosni Mubarak to step down. In the end, he won neither the gratitude of the rebels nor of Mubarak's supporters around the region. Today, as protestors attack the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Obama admits that Egypt is no longer a U.S. ally.
Fast forward to the early March 2011 outbreak of war in Libya. Some, like Sarah Palin, wanted the U.S. to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya in support of the rebels. As I explained at the time, whether or not you agreed with Palin, her view made more sense if you acted quickly, rather than waiting - as Obama did - to start one weeks later when the regime had had time to put its forces in place and the rebels had been backed into a single city (Benghazi). Obama promised that the war would last "days, not weeks": it took five months. The mission, at least publicly billed as giving a larger role to European NATO allies that considered Libya part of their traditional sphere of influence, was memorably described as putting Obama and the United States in the position of "leading from behind," and Obama never even bothered asking for Congressional approval, which would have required him to rally public support.
Meanwhile, even the high point of Obama's presidency - the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden - went forward only after Obama reportedly cancelled the mission three times over the prior four months and slept on the final decision, waiting sixteen hours to give the green light.
Then there were the negotiations with Congress over the budget crisis in July and August 2011, leading to a short-term deal and the downgrading of America's credit rating. As I detailed at the time, Obama not only refused to put his own plan on the table at any time (leaving Republicans to bid against themselves) and refused to negotiate in public (leaving the voters stuck sorting through he-said-she-said accounts of who actually was willing to do what), but even the modest deal that was eventually struck was worked out by Congressional leaders once Obama was out of the picture:
At one point, GOP officials said, the Democratic and Republican leaders asked Obama and his aides to leave the room to let them negotiate.
Obama's response to the civil war in Syria has been almost as diffident as his reactions to Iran and Egypt, threatening the regime if it uses chemical weapons but otherwise remaining on the sidelines as massacres proceed.
(UPDATE: These are not, of course, the only examples of Obama's sluggish responses to crises or his lead-from-behind approach. In 2009, Obama waited three days to speak from Hawaii on the Christmas Day underwear bomber, downplaying the bomber's international-terror ties: "This incident, like several that have preceded it, demonstrates that an alert and courageous citizenry are far more resilient than an isolated extremist." Only later would he address the Al Qaeda connection. Earlier this year, Obama finally came out publicly in support of same sex marriage, a position people on all sides of the issue widely suspected him of favoring, only after public statements by Vice President Biden forced his hand.)
Now, the embassies. Mitt Romney is taking a pounding in the press for acting quickly to put out a statement, one that was quickly overtaken by events when the State Department and unnamed White House officials distanced themselves from earlier public statements by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Obama now says that Romney - one of the most famously calculating and cautious people in politics - took a "shoot first, aim later" approach to the controversy by criticizing the Embassy. This is a window into Obama's thinking: he himself was silent until the next morning, and considers Romney foolish for acting swiftly and vigorously - for showing his cards first. Obama has still not taken questions on the rising violence at the embassies, and jetted off last night to campaign in Las Vegas, leaving unclear how his Administration intends to react to the rising tide of violent protest.
Caution and deliberation are not necessarily bad things; important decisions sometimes take time and require the gathering of additional information, and consensuses sometimes form better without heavy-handed leadership. Sometimes, an empty chair is all the leadership we need. Certainly, in at least some of the crises Obama has faced in the Middle East, doing more would have risked creating even bigger problems. But the next four years will present more occasions when active leadership is needed - leadership on facing down Iran, leadership on containing America's public spending, entitlement and debt crises. Barack Obama has proven, time and again, that he'd rather wait for somebody else to step up so he can decide who to follow. America deserves better.