Published March 18, 2011
After much prodding, President Obama finally responded to the humanitarian crisis in Libya. He passed the buck to the U.N. For the equivocating White House, this was an agreeable tactic. Odds were excellent that the resolution permitting wide-ranging military action against Qaddafi forces would fail. Instead, in a shocking reversal of U.N. precedent, that fractious body has authorized speedy intervention in support of the rebels opposing the brutal Qaddafi regime. Surprise, surprise. Now President Obama must act.
The White House was likely expecting a stalemate, which would have allowed them to do exactly nothing. Obama could have argued innocence while blaming those countries not voting in favor of the resolution.
It would have been a politically appealing outcome, the kind that this administration likes best. A few weeks ago New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a piece in which he queried President Obama’s motives. He dismissed the notion that the president was succumbing to political expediency, saying that that was not characteristic of Mr. Obama.
I disagree. On one issue after another the president has flip-flopped according to the sentiment of the day. Consider offshore drilling. He was against it when chumming for environmentalists, for it when under pressure to produce jobs, against it when the nation was rocked by the Deepwater Horizon spill, then for it when rising gasoline prices threatened to become a political liability. Nearly every move by Mr. Obama seems pinched and squeezed by political calculation.
Here’s why: Obama’s natural biases are so out of synch with those of mainstream Americans that he cannot successfully follow his personal convictions. To do so would be political suicide. On the few occasions when he has spoken from the gut, he has fallen into thick soup.
For instance, when he denounced the cop who legitimately queried his friend Henry Gates in Cambridge, Obama revealed a racial bias that played badly across the nation. When he encountered “Joe the Plumber,” he displayed his deep-set perception of the U.S. as a land of unequal opportunity.
When he said he thought the U.S. exceptional, only to the extent that citizens elsewhere viewed their nations in the same light, Obama manifested a profound disconnect with most Americans’ pride in their country.
Every time Obama has gone off-script, he has raised alarms with middle of the road Americans – the kind whose vote he needs to be reelected in 2012. (There’s a reason that the TelePrompter is Mr. Obama’s best friend.) Consequently, he depends on polling and political calculus for guidance.
Unhappily, this means that the country today is rudderless. We have no overarching foreign policy, but instead lurch from one approach to the next based on the administration’s read of public opinion.
Responding to critics about our dithering in Libya, White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer said as much: “If you look at any public opinion research, people’s number one focus is the economy…” He went on “The American people wouldn’t want us to seem like we’re oblivious to what was happening in Japan and Libya, but they also don’t want us to seem like we’re obsessed with it.” What about what the president thinks? What are Mr. Obama’s principles?
In the end, the outcome in Libya will have little tangible impact on the United States. Our image in the Middle East, not great to begin with, will be a little more tarnished. Our fumbling interference in Bahrain will further establish that we are unpredictable and unreliable. That we opposed the movement of Saudi troops into that small land and that the incursion went forward nonetheless is embarrassing; both countries are allies of long standing and it is quite clear that our influence counts for little. Whose fault is that?
Unhappily, President Obama’s obeisance to political calculus also leads to stalemate in trying to solve our nation’s budget problems -- a possibly more damaging arena. The president called for a bipartisan commission to offer up ways we could stanch the flow of red ink going forward, and so far Mr. Obama has resolutely refused to deal with either the problem or the proposed solutions.
Even his Democratic colleagues have complained that he will not lead. He will not, because tackling our unsustainable long-term entitlements is politically dangerous. The only way this White House will wade into the budget battle is if voters across the land demand progress. Unfortunately, as in other countries facing similar problems, Americans are not yet convinced that spiraling budget deficits will ultimately undermine their way of life.
Republicans in Congress and in state houses across the country are doing a fine job of explaining the budget problems faced by our states and by the U.S. At least we are, as a nation, beginning an all-important debate about our priorities. That voters are increasingly focused on these issues is apparent by the stunning victories in the November elections. Still, this debate must become louder. Only then will the insistence of the majority get the attention of our president. Until that time, he will continue to court interest groups with purposefully inconsistent positions on gay marriage or offshore drilling. The country deserves better.