On Thursday, President Obama interrupted his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard to make a statement on the Egyptian military‘s bloody crackdown on protesters, inciting violence that killed more than 525 people.
Yet his remarks will likely do little to quiet the criticism that had already started circulating about the administration’s response. That’s in part because the president stopped short of cutting off more than a billion dollars in annual aid to Egypt, something a chorus of critics has been urging him to do. But it’s also because it fits into the narrative of the president’s leadership, and how his nuanced middle way that’s often extolled as a strength has increasingly become his Achilles heel.
The decision whether or not to cut off aid to Egypt is likely more complicated than it seems. Still, the “news” from the president’s remarks–that he will cancel joint military exercises with the Egyptian army–landed with a thud. It was action but not bold action, a move that seemed more like a foregone conclusion to many than a fitting answer to such violence.
It played into the leadership portrait–fair or unfair–of Obama and his serial half-measures. His failed gun control efforts were seen as settling. In Syria, he talks of a red line but is unclear what will be done now that it’s been crossed. He’s repeatedly criticized for wanting to have it both ways on everything from the sequester to climate change to NSA transparency.
Of course, it’s simplistic to cast Obama’s leadership entirely in such a passive light. While his measured response to the Trayvon Martin verdict was initially criticized, he later made deeply personal remarks on race that were brave and resonated with many. Meanwhile, cancelling his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in September was applauded by some as an instance of firmly sticking to his principles and radiating clarity.
Still, every time the president makes a pawn-sized move when people are expecting a checkmate, he risks reinforcing an image of a leader who is far too nuanced and too cautious. And once a narrative like that develops, people tend to find ways to make it fit.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.