Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Obama redux (on Brooks' couch)

By David Brooks, New York Times, March 14, 2011
Prudence is always a nice trait in a leader, especially in the face of a thorny problem like Libya. At a time when the nation is anxious, Obama is coming across as a cautious and safe pair of hands. The man is clearly not going to do anything rash.

Politically, this is a style that seems to appeal to independents. Obama is not going to get sucked into a left-versus-right budget battle and see his presidency get washed away. On budget matters, he seems to be playing rope-a-dope — waiting for the Republicans to propose something courageous and foolhardy like entitlement reform, thus giving him an opening to step in as the bulwark against extremism. It’s likely that he can win the next election simply by force of personality, by overshadowing his opponent.
Yet this current cautious pose carries dangers, too. Eisenhower was president at a time when American self-confidence was at its zenith; Americans were content with a president who took small steps. Today, most Americans seem to think their country is seriously off course. They may have less tolerance for a president who leads cautiously from the back.
Prudence can sometimes look like weakness. Obama said his cautious reactions to the Libyan revolution amounted to “tightening the noose” around Qaddafi. Yet there is no evidence that Qaddafi is feeling asphyxiated or even discomforted. As he slaughters his opposition, Western caution looks like fecklessness.
Prudence is important, but Americans do have an expectation that their president will be the one out front, dominating the agenda, projecting strength and offering vision.
All in all, President Obama is an astoundingly complicated person. During the 2008 presidential campaign, and during the first two years of his term, I would have said that his troubling flaw was hubris — his attempts to do everything at once. But he seems to have an amazing capacity to self-observe and adjust. 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.
The Brooks' piece attempts to position Obama between the rhetoric of both Presidents Eisenhower, in his farewell address, and John F. Kennedy's rousing appeal to ideals and action in his inaugural address.
Truth be told, Obama is in far different times and circumstances than either former president.
The hawks in military intervention in the Middle East seem to come, mostly from the Republican party. The hawks in the domestic budget conflict seem to come from both the Republican and the Tea parties, since there is considered space between the two, even though both groups dub themselves Republicans.
Hawks, like roman candles, will eventually burn out. The president is in this "thing" for the long haul, and everyone knows he can both "take centre stage, or the front of the parade," as he finally did on health care reform. Now they also know that he is certainly not "Bush III" in the sense that his hand is already on a pulled trigger, ready to fire first and find out why afterwards.
On the military/foreign policy front, there is a cauldron boiling in the Middle East and North Africa. The news from that front changes by the minute, certainly by the hour, especially around the Libyan dictator, The Arab League, the Saudis, and more recently the other remaining leaders who seem to have found both strength and confidence to beat back the rebels demanding their overthrow.
On the budget front, as he did on health care, he is waiting for some legitimate, serious and worthy proposals to come from the Congress, so that when he does enter the arena, he is not spinning his wheels, with those whose solitary aim is to "assure that he will be a one-term president". Those people are simply not to be easily trusted, and are not to be engaged unless and until they show a mature hand with proposals that are worth debating.
Bringing maturity, responsibility, insight and long-range thinking and planning to the budget process is something all Americans would like to see, and the president has the intellect, the gravitas and the stature to bring those things to the table. Without them, in fact, there likely be a government shut-down, from failed attempts by self-serving short-term thinking and acting.
When he does enter the budget stage of his presidency, rest assured that he will bring proposals and the option of compromise that will far exceed anything from his Republican opponents.
Stop attempting to dichotomize the president, into either "this" or "that"...and then call him complex, because he does not fit easily into one or other box.
The U.S., and the world could be served much less effectively, in such extraordinary times, with so many pots literally and figuratively boiling nearly over, than by such a "man of steel," as Tony Blair describes him in his autobiography, My Journey. I would only amend that description to include perhaps a crystal clear mind with a razor sharpness to it, and a constitution and ethic that transcends both politics and national dreams and aspirations. As he leads his people through patient self-confidence and deliberately not over-reaching is something the American people could do well to learn from; there is so much for the American people to learn from this outstanding man.
There is no equation or precedent for the convex of issues on the president's plate; there is only a single president, advised and counselled by an inordinately intelligent spouse, and a band of advisors each of whose capacity to advise is, undoubtedly, growing exponentially by the minute, as is their exhaustion just watching their leader;yet that observation must remain private.

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