What's Obama made of?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 3, 2009 9:57 AM

One year after he was elected, we're still asking questions about Barack Obama's character.

By we, I mean, of course, the people who pop off about politics for a living. But maybe some voters as well.

The test of the moment is Afghanistan, a no-good-choices dilemma that would surely loom as a turning point for any commander in chief. But supporters and skeptics alike also question Obama's gut when it comes to health care, gay rights and other issues where they say he remains undefined.

Perhaps this is the byproduct of the way he rocketed onto the national scene. We never really saw the former state senator make decisions until he was a presidential candidate. But it also may reflect Obama's cool, consensus-building style, his split-the-difference approach, so that in the end we're left wondering: What is he willing to fight for? Why did he let Congress write the health bill? If Afghanistan is the good war, why the hesitation?

That's rather glib, of course. The Afghan war is eight years old. The government is, as they say in diplomatic circles, an unreliable partner. The society, built in part on the opium trade, is heavily tribal. Would another 40,000 troops make a difference? How about 140,000? Or does that amount to sacrificing more American lives with no realistic hope of success?

I don't mind a little dithering if Obama makes the right move. But as Tom Friedman says, how much domestic support will there be for a war that drags on several more years and requires growing numbers of troops? The question answers itself. And that is part of the president's dilemma.

David Brooks hits several of these notes in examining the looming decision on Afghanistan. He says he checked with a number of military experts:

"These people, who follow the war for a living, who spend their days in military circles both here and in Afghanistan, have no idea if President Obama is committed to this effort. They have no idea if he is willing to stick by his decisions, explain the war to the American people and persevere through good times and bad.

"Their first concerns are about Obama the man. They know he is intellectually sophisticated. They know he is capable of processing complicated arguments and weighing nuanced evidence.

"But they do not know if he possesses the trait that is more important than intellectual sophistication and, in fact, stands in tension with it. They do not know if he possesses tenacity, the ability to fixate on a simple conviction and grip it, viscerally and unflinchingly, through complexity and confusion. They do not know if he possesses the obstinacy that guided Lincoln and Churchill, and which must guide all war presidents to some degree. . . .

"So I guess the president's most important meeting is not the one with the Joint Chiefs and the cabinet secretaries. It's the one with the mirror, in which he looks for some firm conviction about whether Afghanistan is worthy of his full and unshakable commitment. If the president cannot find that core conviction, we should get out now. It would be shameful to deploy more troops only to withdraw them later. If he does find that conviction, then he should let us know, and fill the vacuum that is eroding the chances of success."

Salon Editor Joan Walsh tees off on the column:

"Partly it's because Brooks likes to pretend to be open-minded and reasonable, while spouting neocon talking points, and occasionally liberals get pulled in by him. But [this] was trademark lazy ideological Brooks. As Glenn Greenwald notes, unbelievably he bragged about 'doing what journalists are supposed to do' -- which he defined as talking to a handful of anonymous pro-war sources, who uniformly criticized Obama's inaction to date on McCrystal's troop request.

"That's some brave [stuff] . . . Not quite David Rohde brave, but hey, he made the calls! If it was unanimous, that means he didn't call retired Marine Matthew Hoh, who resigned from a civilian post in Afghanistan this week because he said we can't win, and our presense is only fueling the insurgency. Hoh told the Washington Post's Karen de Young he's 'not some peacenik, pot-smoking hippie who wants everyone to be in love' and that he believes 'there are plenty of dudes who need to be killed,' adding: 'I was never more happy than when our Iraq team whacked a bunch of guys.'

"That question of toughness, macho, manhood, always comes up when we discuss what it would mean for Obama to get realistic about his two wars and get really serious about winding them down. David Brooks' worst Obama slur in his Friday column was the quietly outrageous, ad hominem, Peggy Noonan-ish revelation that his unanimous pro-war sources don't question Obama's smarts or understanding: 'Their first concerns are about Obama the man.' Oooooh. And here's how Brooks defines manhood: 'tenacity, the ability to fixate on a simple conviction and grip it, viscerally and unflinchingly, through complexity and confusion.' "

As opposed to, say, dithering?

And whaddya know, Tom Friedman, who recently went golfing with the president, poses another version of the Brooks question:

"More and more lately, I find people asking me: What do you think President Obama really believes about this or that issue? I find that odd. How is it that a president who has taken on so many big issues, with very specific policies -- and has even been awarded a Nobel Prize for all the hopes he has kindled -- still has so many people asking what he really believes?

"I don't think that President Obama has a communications problem, per se. He has given many speeches and interviews broadly explaining his policies and justifying their necessity. Rather, he has a 'narrative' problem.

"He has not tied all his programs into a single narrative that shows the links between his health care, banking, economic, climate, energy, education and foreign policies. Such a narrative would enable each issue and each constituency to reinforce the other and evoke the kind of popular excitement that got him elected.

"Without it, though, the president's eloquence, his unique ability to inspire people to get out of their seats and work for him, has been muted or lost in a thicket of technocratic details."

He's right about the details. But presidents don't get to be the sole authors of their narrative, as Obama was in "Dreams from My Father."

Obama has been a success in drawing glowing coverage of his personal life, as we saw in that NYT Magazine cover story on his marriage. Now USA Today weighs in on the family:

"He carries a smartphone on his hip, goes out for burgers and plays pickup hoops. She goes to their daughters' soccer games, works in the garden and loves listening to her iPod. Together, they host poets, artists and musicians at their house and invite neighborhood kids to drop by.

"Their kids, meanwhile, go to birthday parties, romp around with their new dog and get spoiled by Grandma.

"Sounds like a lot of families -- but this is the nation's first family. . . .

"President Obama may not have delivered on all the policy changes he promised since his election a year ago, but he and his family have brought dramatic social change to the nation's capital and to the country's collective image of its first family -- and not just because they're the first African Americans in charge at the White House."

Put Barack aside. Should Michelle be bolder? Tina Brown says yes:

"I found myself pitted against [Newsweek's Allison] Samuels on Campbell Brown's CNN show, with me cast as the nice one defending all those photo ops of Michelle wielding her scissors at recalcitrant parsnips in the White House vegetable garden. I argued--out of sisterly wish fulfillment, I now realize--that the first lady was just biding her time before a power surge next year. She has, after all, always been good at pacing herself. "Not my plan" is a recurring Michelle phrase in interviews when she reflects on how her husband's political stardom had intruded on her own conception of what constituted a true partnership. But she is such a big, red-blooded star herself that we yearn for her to take center stage.

"Now we're told that next year she will be the White House point person on childhood obesity. That's nice. Plus, she visits the veterans a lot. So far, so traditional. But that power surge of frank speaking we hunger for is hardly realistic in a media culture where a flying sound bite can impale your agenda for the next six months. When Michelle showed her kick-ass side on the campaign trail ('For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country') it caused so much flak for her husband that she was pretty much sent into hiding for two months. Do we really expect her to stick her neck out again and start sounding off on all the things Samuels wants her to raise hell about, like condoms and AIDS prevention as part of the already-contentious healthcare debate, or a full-scale attack on the junk food lobby? After all, if a first lady whose approval ratings are higher than the president's raises an issue as a big national problem, isn't she implicitly demanding that he do something about it?"

True. But isn't taking on junk food -- noble a cause as it is -- pretty small stuff for a popular first lady?

Religion and Health

When I was at CNN on Sunday, John Boehner had an aide lug around all 1,900 pages of the health bill, which he used as a prop. I wonder if he knew this was in there:

"Backed by some of the most powerful members of the Senate, a little-noticed provision in the healthcare overhaul bill would require insurers to consider covering Christian Science prayer treatments as medical expenses.

"The provision was inserted by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) with the support of Democratic Sens. John F. Kerry and the late Edward M. Kennedy, both of Massachusetts, home to the headquarters of the Church of Christ, Scientist," the LAT reports.

Leno: No Regrets

Broadcasting & Cable has a fascinating Q&A with Jay Leno that focuses in part on all the flak his 10 p.m. show has drawn:

"No, not surprised at all. You don't take it personally because there's really no fun in an upbeat story. The fun is, they did this and let's watch it fall. I enjoy being the underdog. . . . I don't blame anybody else; my name's on the product so I take 95% of the blame. . . . Would I have preferred to stay at 11:30? Yeah, sure. I would have preferred that. I think it's too soon to say whether I regret anything or not."

And Leno has this to say about his rival Letterman:

"He's not being a hypocrite; Dave has never set himself up as [a model citizen]. If it were me, it would kill me. I'm the guy who's been married 29 years. But Dave has never pretended to be Mr. Moral America, he's never set himself up that way."

Athletic Redemption?

I'm a huge Yankee fan, and while I've cheered A-Rod's clutch hitting during the post-season, I haven't forgotten his shameful lies about steroids. Apparently, though, that is becoming a non-issue, the NYT reports:

"Aided by his bat and an astute apology, Alex Rodriguez is ending the baseball season not as a former steroids user but as a home run hero. In the process, he may be clearing a path forward for himself and his much-maligned sport. . . .

"Partisanship often plays a role in the steroid discussion, one city's hero being another city's target of abuse. But across a fairly wide spectrum, Rodriguez has already drawn, beyond leniency, a standing ovation from the court of public opinion."

And if he had kept whiffing with men on base? Then he'd still be an outcast?

One more reason to root for the Yankees, according to the WSJ:

Since 1930, the Yankees . . . have been a harbinger of average of 5% GDP growth in years following a series victory, healthy by any measure. In years in which the Yankees didn't win the World Series (either they lost or didn't make it) U.S. output expanded at an unspectacular 2.9%.

By the way, what a dumb move by the Philadelphia Inquirer, running an ad for shirts congratulating the Phillies on back-to-back Series victories.

Well-Connected Journalist

It's been a tough few days for Dominic Carter of NY1, one of the city's top correspondents, as he's battled allegations of spousal abuse and the revelation that he fathered two out-of-wedlock children, all trumped by the New York Post. He is on leave from his cable job:

"The Post revealed to his bosses that when he was hauled to court on charges that he punched his wife last year, the NY1 political anchor started name-dropping. 'Clearly, that kind of behavior is a violation of every principle of journalism and is something we would not tolerate,' NY1 general manager Steve Paulus told the tabloid. 'He's off the air. His status as a NY1 employee is up in the air. . . . Is he coming back? I could not answer that question.' According to the Post, this is exactly what went down in the conversation between Carter and Rockland County judge Arnold Etelson.

" 'Your honor, with all due respect to the court, the nature of what I do for a living, my political enemies, if they get nature of this, it will end up in the Daily News.' Etelson asked, 'What do you think I'm going to do, put this in the Journal News?' Carter replied, 'You won't, your honor, but I'm a very high-profile journalist.'. . . . 'My wife was profiled last month in Oprah Winfrey's magazine. I've appeared on the cover of the New York Times and T.V. Guide. This is not fair.'. . . . 'I've covered the state attorney general and the chief judge of the court of the state of New York. [That judge] Judith Kaye is a personal friend. This is not fair. [Manhattan D.A.] Bob Morgenthau is a personal friend of mine.'

"Etelson fired back, 'Don't start dropping names. You know better than that.' "

Heated Disagreement

I was on the road yesterday, and I missed the initial incident, but here are two reports on the fisticuffs at The Washington Post.

More From the Twit

If you clicked on yesterday's link, you may have seen the CNN interview I did with Roland Hedley of "Doonesbury" fame. I mean, I was helping the guy peddle his book of tweets, which is filled with, shall we say, abbreviated wisdom. So what thanks do I get? The intrepid egomaniac goes after me on Twitter.

"Just did book twinterview w/snarky media critic. Accused ME of narcissism. Dude! Yr so vain, you probably think this tweet is about you."

Ouch -- channeling Carly Simon. I didn't take the bait -- wouldn't be prudent -- so Hedley started name-calling:

"Headbutted w/@howardkurtz on CNN. Made him cry like little girl, but still buds. Both pros."

Tears? I don't think so. I had something in my eye. The only thing that's choking me up now is that this gasbag still has a platform.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources." And he's on Twitter.

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