(Susan Walsh/AP)

"This was a phrase that the media picked up on. But it's not one that I ever used."

— President Obama on the “Jay Leno Show,” Oct. 25, 2011


The debate over “leading from behind” has erupted again. The president said this week he never used the phrase, which first surfaced in a lengthy New Yorker article on Obama’s foreign policy.

 But when National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor claimed to USA Today that “no one in this White House ever said leading from behind,” the author of the New Yorker article, Ryan Lizza, tweeted Thursday that the quote did in fact come from from a White House official.

What’s been lost in this debate is that the phrase “leading from behind” accurately reflected the message that the Obama administration had been making to reporters for months.

As Jason Ukman noted in an excellent Checkpoint Washington column in July, a front-page Washington Post article in March written with on-the-record cooperation by the White House had already laid out this theme.

Check out the headline on the article: “On Libya, Obama willing to let allies take the lead.”

The White House began to protest only when the policy was summarized in a bumper-sticker-like phrase that reflected negatively on the president. Sometimes, political spin can catch up with you.