The right words for a war president
For the past week, I have been mulling over two intriguing things President Obama said the day he announced his Afghanistan policy -- one about the political strategy that underlies his presidency, and the other about the delicate question of negotiating with the Taliban.
The setting was a luncheon for columnists in the White House library. It was Dec. 1, and the president was about to leave for West Point to give his Afghanistan speech. He was dry and analytical at lunch, just as he was that night in his address to the Corps of Cadets. I came away from both presentations thinking that Obama wasn't bringing his rhetorical "A-game" to the challenge of uniting the country for war.
But there were the two juicy nuggets that stuck in my mind, which hint of a broader and more creative approach to governing and diplomacy. They suggest the strategic thinking in the back of our professorial president's mind when he's reading from that teleprompter. (And yes, up close in the White House library, it did seem as if he were scanning an invisible teleprompter as he spoke those perfect sentences and paragraphs, looking left and right.)
The first insight involved his growing unpopularity in the polls, which he said was "painfully clear." He understands that he was elected to lift the country, to "rebuild America," as he put it, and make it work better, politically and economically. He's becoming a war president, like his predecessor, but he still wants to foster America's defining qualities of ambition, idealism and hope.
Here's the passage that suggested his broader vision: "Part of the goal of my presidency is to take the threat of terrorism seriously but expand our notions of security so that it includes improving our science and technology, making sure our schools work, getting serious about clean energy, fixing our health-care system, stabilizing our deficit and our debt."
This may sound like boilerplate, but it's actually a pretty good manifesto for governing.
Obama's problem is that making policy isn't like making speeches. Leadership isn't abstract and fuzzy anymore but real and reactive: The president must deal with the crises before him -- an economy near collapse when he took office and a grinding war in Afghanistan. Making responsible policy decisions isn't easy, and in the case of bailing out bankers or sending more troops to Afghanistan, it will leave nearly everyone unhappy. But Obama seems newly comfortable making enemies if he thinks he's doing the right thing.
"If I were basing my decisions on polls," he said, "then the banking system might have collapsed, and we probably wouldn't have GM or Chrysler, and it's not clear that the economy would be growing right now." Some presidents have an almost compulsive need to be popular (think Bill Clinton). This one is less needy, which is an advantage for him and the country.
The second insight involved what may sound like a technical issue, but it goes to how the Afghanistan war will end. I asked Obama whether he would back reconciliation with the Taliban. He responded: "We are supportive of the Afghan government's efforts to reintegrate those elements of the Taliban that . . . have abandoned violence and are willing to engage in the political process."
Obama sent more signals that night at West Point: He dropped the language from his March 27 speech on Afghanistan insisting the Taliban's core "must be defeated" and promised only to "reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government." He also pledged to "support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban" who are ready to make peace.
The Taliban gave an interesting response a few days later on its Web site, Alemarah.info. It said the group "has no agenda of meddling in the internal affairs of other countries and is ready to give legal guarantee if the foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan." Now, what did that mean? Was it a hint the Taliban might break with al-Qaeda? I don't know, but I hope the White House is asking Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to find out.
Obama has a cool and detached style that makes people forget, sometimes, that he is an innovator and a change agent. He would be wise to show the country less of the mental teleprompter and more of the fire inside.