President Obama’s approval ratings are languishing in the mid-40s again. Conservatives argue that Obama lacks executive acumen. They say that he’s a prisoner of leftist ideology, immune to facts and experience. There’s a lot to all of that.
But what we’ve learned over the past couple of years is that Obama, in no small part due, one can surmise, to years of fawning by rapt liberal academics and pols anxious to praise every utterance, is thin on knowledge and nearly entirely bereft of strategic thinking.
He’s articulate and can be (at the Arizona memorial, for example) an inspired speaker. But what does he know? Does anyone aside from his devoted spinners imagine that he grasped the limits of the United Nations and other international bodies, understood the frailty of Middle Eastern despots, correctly analyzed the root of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, appreciated the history of Keynesian failure or perceived the enormity of our looming debt crisis? As the problems become more acute, his limitations become more obvious. At this point it’s hard to imagine that he could hold his own on the same stage with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and debate their respective budget plans.
Obama has relied throughout his career on a mix of glossy rhetoric and clever pop psychology. But ask those who observed him during his brief Senate career if he showed a depth of understanding or interest on major legislation. You’ll find he wasn’t much concerned with the details of legislation or the substance of policy debates. Unlike Ronald Reagan, who had fixed principles and an overarching vision of the major international challenges we faced, Obama perpetually vamps. Each crisis and challenge comes as a surprise and is viewed in isolation from other events. He can’t fathom that there are flaws in his own inch-deep theories (e.g., Israeli settlements are the barrier to Middle East peace) or that there are well-reasoned alternative views (e.g., our Syria engagement policy is a moral and strategic flop).
As a result what we have seen is a series of herky-jerky tactical moves intended to maneuver past immediate problems but lacking in strategic purpose. Get Libyan critics off his back? Give a speech and conduct a half-hearted war. Check the budget criticism and the rise of Ryan? Again give a speech but one devoid of fiscal seriousness and easily debunked (not to mention taken as a signal by Standard & Poor’s of the insolubility of our debt problems). In the midst of the 2011 continuing resolution negotiations, he issued a peevish veto threat — but to what end and for what reason? Increasingly, Obama seems to lack the ability to think more than a step ahead.
His has become a reactive, not to mention reactionary, presidency. He moves only when forced to (by Ryan on the budget or France on Libya). He struggles to defend a LBJ domestic agenda and constructs a foreign policy combining the worst of contradictory impulses (cut defense, attach self-defeating caveats to the exercise of American power, attempt to outsource leadership).
Obama and his defenders whine that these are tough times, tougher than any mortal could be expected to manage. But that’s poppycock. Reagan faced a collapse of American confidence, a sky-high “misery index”and an emboldened Soviet Union. George W. Bush faced the worst attack on American soil in 60 years. All presidents face challenges. The question is do they have the character, the depth of knowledge and the skill to manage them. In Obama’s case there is reason to doubt that he does.