Richard Cohen: A question of competence

October 28, 2013

Where is Casey Stengel when we need him? In 1962, as the manager of the brand new and determinedly hapless New York Mets — 40 wins, 120 losses — he looked up and down his bench one dismal day and wondered, “Can’t anybody here play this game?” That phrase kept coming at me recently as I watched the impressively inept performance of the Obama administration in both foreign and domestic policy. On a given day, this administration makes the ’62 Mets look good.

This is a surprise — at least to me. If Barack Obama has an image, it is of the infinitely cool, cerebral leader. The man can give a rousing speech, but he is, at heart, a planner and a plodder. Both of his presidential campaigns were exercises in micromanagement — digital all the way. Obama was the better candidate, but he had, by far, the better organization.

Yet this same man has lately so mishandled both domestic and foreign policy that he is in mortal peril of altering his image. This unsettling and uncharacteristic incompetence became shockingly clear when Obama failed to come to grips with the Syrian civil war. I did not agree with the president’s do-nothing policy, but at least it was both a policy and intellectually coherent. What followed, though, was both intellectually incoherent and pathetically inconsistent — a “red line” that came out of nowhere and then mysteriously evaporated and a missile strike that was threatened and then abandoned. It was a policy so wavering that if Obama were driving, he would be forced to take a breathalyzer.

The debacle of the Affordable Care Act’s Web site raised similar questions about confidence. This was supposed to be Obama’s Big Deal. The president has other accomplishments — navigating out of the Great Recession was no minor feat — but restoring the status quo does not get your face on Mount Rushmore. It takes achievement, a program — something new and wonderful. The Affordable Care Act was supposed to be it.

Something went wrong. People could not sign up. Why? Not sure. Who’s at fault? Apparently no one. An act of God. Something that could never have been foreseen. Another president might have had someone in the White House calling every day — no, twice a day — to make sure the program was going to work. But no, it was a shock to everyone, and when the White House rolled out its gigantic cake — maestro, some music please — no one jumped out.

Pathetic.

Here, I must mention that bit of theater in which various world leaders wax indignant about their telephone conversations being bugged by the National Security Agency (NSA). This is not Obama’s doing since the program predated his time in office. But the decibel level of the outrage does suggest that in Germany, France, Brazil and elsewhere, Obama’s standing is not what it once was. He and America are no longer held in either awe or respect, and the bugging program, instead of seeming a necessary evil, looks both clumsy and silly. Bugging Angela Merkel’s personal phone — she who once said that when she thinks of Germany she thinks of “well-sealed windows” — puts at risk the poor NSA listener. He must be catatonic by now.

But the reaction of the bugged has been nothing compared to the bleat of anger coming from the Middle East. The Saudis, who usually whisper their differences, have severely upped the volume and now talk dismissively of Obama and America. They didn’t like the way we washed our hands of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, a steadfast and durable ally, and then dealt with the Syrian civil war in such a wobbly fashion. In recent days, the kingdom has rejected a seat on the U.N. Security Council and, in the person of its intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, has said the U.S.-Saudi relationship is strained. Bandar, a former ambassador to Washington, can hardly be dismissed as anti-American.

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, and in the long run Riyadh and Washington were always going to make an odd couple. But the current spat is not about values but about reliability and performance. The Obama administration has botched Syria and, in the Saudi (and Israeli) view, cannot be trusted to deal firmly with Iran. An erratic presidency has made the world a bit less safe.

History will someday provide perspective and say, possibly, that Syria and Obamacare did not matter. I doubt it. At the least, they help validate the once-frivolous Republican charges of incompetence. A competent president would beware. As Casey Stengel might note, strike three is coming up.

Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.

Read more about this issue:

The Post’s View: Trouble at the core of U.S. foreign policy

John McCain and Lindsey Graham: Obama is failing the Middle East and U.S. interests

Robert Samuelson: Obamacare backfires — on everyone

David Ignatius: Obama is criticized for the right result on Syria

George F. Will: What Obama and the tea party have in common

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