Four months before the 2012 election, TV journalist Charlie Rose asked President Obama if he had learned any lessons that might come in handy during a second term. Obama’s response was almost comically self-serving:
“The mistake of my first term — couple of years — was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. And that’s important. But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.”
He went on:
“It’s funny — when I ran, everybody said, ‘Well he can give a great speech, but can he actually manage the job?’ And in my first two years, I think the notion was, ‘Well, he’s been juggling and managing a lot of stuff, but where’s the story that tells us where he’s going?’ And I think that was a legitimate criticism.”
In other words, Obama’s biggest first-term mistake had to do with style rather than substance — or so the president wanted us to believe.
I was reminded of the 2012 interview when reading New York Times correspondent Peter Baker’s account of two discussions that Obama had with independent analysts prior to his September 10th national address on countering the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Here’s Baker, describing what Obama told some of his guests:
“[H]e alternated between resolve as he vowed to retaliate against President Bashar al-Assad if Syrian forces shot at American planes, and prickliness as he mocked critics of his more reticent approach to the exercise of American power.
“‘Oh, it’s a shame when you have a wan, diffident, professorial president with no foreign policy other than “don’t do stupid things,”’ guests recalled him saying, sarcastically imitating his adversaries. ‘I do not make apologies for being careful in these areas, even if it doesn’t make for good theater.’”
“The real criticism of the President isn’t that his foreign policy is too deliberative, it is that his deliberations don’t seem to end with policies that, well, work. He put a lot of thought and effort into the reset with Russia; the results are what we see. His carefully considered and cool-headed search for moderate Islamists and attempts to build relationships with them didn’t end well in either Turkey or Egypt, and it is hard to see what it accomplished. His humanitarian intervention in Libya left that country worse off than he found it, and shows very little evidence of foresight or careful thinking on his part. His peacemaking diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinians has been conspicuously less successful than the efforts of most of his predecessors, and the most recent Gaza debacle further weakened our damaged standing in the region. Nobody seems to be hailing his Afghan strategy as a masterpiece, and few think he handled Iraq particularly well. Old allies in Europe, the Middle East and Asia seem to doubt his resolve, in six years he doesn’t seem to have developed particularly close or effective relationships with other world leaders, and more and more observers at home and abroad believe that he has lost control of events.
“None of this is about pace or style. If President Obama were getting good results and his strategies seemed to be working, nobody would be complaining about how long it took him to make up his mind, or criticizing him for choosing complicated and subtle approaches.
“If he were twice as slow and twice as nuanced in his approach to key issues, the American people would be cheering him on and the delirious think tank illuminati would be dancing before him and scattering rose petals beneath his triumphant feet — if his policies were working. It’s the impression of confusion, failure and retreat, not impatience with deliberation and nuance, that is undermining President Obama’s standing in the country and the world and causing Democratic strategists to rip out their hair. . . .
“President Obama isn’t in trouble because he moves cautiously. President Obama isn’t in trouble because he prefers cool reason to hot passion when it comes to making big foreign policy moves. President Obama isn’t in trouble because his decisions are grounded in the complexities of the real world. President Obama is in trouble because fewer and fewer people at home or abroad think that the policies he chooses can bring about the ends he seeks.
“It is a substance issue, not a style problem, and it is grounded in observation and reason, not passion and personal hostility. Though some of his critics are overheated, and some no doubt are more motivated by partisanship than anything else, at its core the increasingly widespread negative assessment of the President’s foreign policy is a cool judgment and not a hot one.”