President George W. Bush was mocked for saying he was the “decider.” But that is precisely what a president must be. Deciding is arguably the most important thing a president does, along with rallying others, whether in war or to support a domestic agenda, to an important national purpose.
Presidents only make the hard calls, ones in which advisers are divided or uncertain. Everything else is handled a level or two below the president. If a candidate comes to office expecting a series of easy calls punctuated by a hard one now and then he’ll be disappointed — and overwhelmed.
President Obama can agonize and debate all likes — behind closed doors. We don’t need to and should not see a president think out loud and champion irresoluteness, as we saw this Tuesday night and over the last few weeks. We don’t elect presidents to be the “equivocator” or the “vacillator.” The left passes indecision off as thoughtfulness, trying to make a fatal flaw into a virtue. But in fact, gravitas comes from the seriousness of purpose and the wisdom of a president’s judgments, not from letting us know how hard his job is. The latter sounds pitiful, like a student explaining he failed a test because it was too hard and he was too busy to study. It is critical that once a president decides, he must be a forceful and effective advocate; he must lead.
The utter failure to be the “decider” is, in large part, why Obama’s performance on Syria has provoked widespread condemnation across the political spectrum. In foreign policy, most especially, his Hamlet routine and the constant shifts in direction and tactics do not engender confidence among Americans or elicit respect from international foes and friends. Men and women who put their lives on the line for the country cannot be expected to serve on a rudderless ship of state.
Eliot Cohen today illuminates one aspect of the “agonizer in chief” act, the claim to be weary of war. He writes: “For a president to confess to war- weariness is to confess weakness. It is the business of the commander in chief to inspire, either with tempered optimism or grim determination. He fails in his duty if he tells his subordinates, his people and the world that he is weary of the burden that he assiduously sought.” Indeed, Obama looks tiny in an office held once by giants. Is it really beyond him to carry the burden of ordering an “unbelievably small” strike on a third-rate power?
The agonizing and war-weariness are not only an admission of his own inability to lead but also a backhanded indictment of those advocating a more muscular approach. Obama, you see feels deeply the burdens of war, unlike those flippant war-mongers. It rarely crosses his mind that those now advocating use of hard power had been pleading for years for him to wield soft power more effectively. He might not feel so weary and overwhelmed by the prospect of military action — indeed, he might not need to resort to it at all — if he had stepped up to the plate long ago and used the full array of soft powers at his disposal to force Syria President Bashar al-Assad’s departure and bolster the non-jihadi opposition.
The president is a fan of “collectivism,” as he aptly described it in his second inaugural address. He chides those who think individuals built the country; he assigns credit for national accomplishments to this collectivism, which he identifies as the federal government. Even if you agree with that sentiment (conservatives surely don’t) collective effort does not ignite and move on its own. We elect officials — and all elect the president — to chart the course, encourage the journey and resolve to reach the destination.
If Obama prefer to sit pondering, nervous about getting out of sync with the transitory whims of the country is claims to lead, he shouldn’t have run for a second term. He and America would have been the better for it.