President Obama has used his rhetorical and intellectual skills in the past to get himself out of a jam or boost his standing when he needed it most. He did it with a speech on race when the Rev. Jeremiah Wright threatened his candidacy during the 2008 primaries. He did it in January after the Tucson shootings with a speech that helped him regain his balance after midterm election losses.
He will try to do that again with his scheduled speech Monday night on the Libyan conflict. His first obligation, as NATO assumes command, will be to speak with greater precision and clarity about the mission, what means will be pursued to oust Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi and what the U.S. role will be if and when that happens.
But precise rhetoric is only a partial answer to the problem that now presents itself. Obama must also speak with strength and conviction about where he is leading after sending signals that this is a conflict he wishes the United States could have avoided and a military mission that this country has little desire to lead.
The president and his most senior advisers have struggled to define the mission. They have relied on euphemisms — “time-limited, scope-limited military action” being the most widely quoted — to explain what the conflict is and isn’t, what the U.S. role is and isn’t. The results of their efforts have been mixed at best.
The seeming inconsistency between the stated goal of the military mission (to protect the civilian population and prevent a humanitarian crisis) and Obama’s statement of U.S. policy (that Gaddafi must go) may make sense to policymakers here and in some allied capitals. It may be deliberately inconsistent, given the differing views of coalition partners and the desire of the administration not to make this a U.S.-only intervention. But to some, it has seemed a muddle.
This is not the first time the president has appeared eager for others to take the lead on a difficult issue. He let House Democrats write his stimulus bill in the first weeks of his administration. He put more money into bank bailouts but said he didn’t like to do it. He bailed out automakers but said he wanted the government out as quickly as possible.
He declined to send Congress a health-care plan of his own and then waited months in the hope that senators could produce a bipartisan package. By the time it was clear they couldn’t, his presidency had been damaged and his health-care bill almost killed. When he finally committed to seeing the fight through to the end, he got his bill through Congress. The victory came at a high political price to Obama and his party.
He appointed a bipartisan commission to make recommendations for dealing with the long-term fiscal problems of debt and deficits. Then he stood back as the two leaders of the effort — former Republican senator Alan Simpson and Democrat Erskine Bowles — tried to cobble together a supermajority of the membership that could have forced congressional consideration. He raised the commission’s recommendations in his State of the Union address but invited congressional Republicans to take the first step to confront the problem.
He has exhorted Congress to reach a compromise to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year but has so far declined repeated Republican demands to become more deeply engaged in the negotiations.
When Republicans, pointing to his health-care plan, his partial takeover of the auto industry and the size of his stimulus program, claimed he is a big government liberal, he rejected the label. When, after cutting a deal with Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy for another two years, it was said he had moved to the center in the wake of the Democrats’ losses in the midterm elections, he rejected that assessment, too.
In 2009, he spent months presiding over an exhaustive review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, drawing criticism that he was indecisive. When he ultimately decided to sharply escalate the conflict with additional troops, he insisted that the announcement be coupled with a statement committing the United States to begin drawing down those forces in July 2011.
Administration officials can legitimately offer arguments in nearly all these cases.
Domestically, the president faced monumental economic problems that demanded shock treatment and extraordinary measures. Obama didn’t initiate the bank bailouts, they note, President George W. Bush did. He fought for health care, despite the political costs, because he believed there might not be another chance to make major changes in a system fraught with problems. He preferred a bipartisan solution but Republicans weren’t going to help, no matter what he tried. He is serious about tackling entitlements, but reviving the economy and getting the deficit under control must take precedence.
White House advisers said his Afghan policy was true to his campaign commitment to focus more resources on that conflict while bringing the Iraq war to an end. His decision, they argue, was an example of exercising presidential leadership by forcing the Pentagon to accept a start date for withdrawal and making clear he was not prepared to spend money there indefinitely.
The uprisings in the Middle East have come swiftly and unexpectedly. Libya is not Egypt or Tunisia — or Bahrain or Yemen. Policymakers are scurrying to stay abreast of unfolding events.
Gaddafi’s history as a tyrant and his threats to slaughter civilians required careful diplomacy to avoid a U.S.-only war on an Arab nation and, when the United Nations voted, required that a hastily implemented military plan that was, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, put together “on the fly.” Is it any wonder it has looked messy for a few days?
Results matter most. If Gaddafi is gone in a month, much of the criticism of the president could fade quickly.
Still, the president’s actions and style have raised anew questions about his leadership. Is his oft-stated patience a virtue, as his advisers claim, or does his down-stated approach convey tentativeness and uncertainty? Can he explain why he stands where he stands? That’s why Monday’s speech is important.