Nine days after Barack Obama launched his wee war in Libya, he went on television to tell the American people why he had done so. Not quite a week after congressional Republicans thumped the president by excising more money from his budget than he said he’d allow, the president will present his plan for dealing with the deficit. The cliche of late has been the trope about “getting ahead of history.” Wonderful. I would settle for Obama just catching up with himself.
The military action in Libya is a case in point. The president had ample reason to intervene. Moammar Gaddafi is a monster and there was little question that if he prevailed he would make his enemies, down to their children, suffer. This was an easy argument to make — one buttressed by Gaddafi’s own record as a sponsor of terrorism, the Lockerbie bombing above all — and dramatically abetted by the wild look in his eye. The situation called for a presidential speech.
First, though, Obama had to go to Latin America. It says something about this president — something good as well as bad — that plenty of people suspected he went through with the trip because he had promised his wife and kids that he would do so. Whatever the case — and the trip lacked any urgency whatsoever — it was not until his return that the president told the nation why we are, in a modest way, at war in Libya. The speech was a good one, a nice but hardly moving tutorial about American values and obligations, but it came too late. Within no time at all, the war had been lateraled to NATO, the rebels’ momentum had stalled, and Obama had essentially cleansed his hands of the matter. Libya may now be in for a protracted civil war. Obama botched this one.
Something similar happened with the budget fight. This is a tenacious battle but not a complicated issue. The debt is unmanageable and something has to be done. But the economy is fragile, unemployment still high and the housing market a sorry mess. So the thing to do is not monkey with the economy by cutting federal outlays at the moment but to come up with a long-range plan.
The plan is to be announced this week — at last. For some time a bipartisan group of more than 60 senators has been asking Obama a basic question: What’s the plan? This is not merely about economics but about values. Amazingly and pathetically, the one value that came out of the recent budget showdown was Obama drawing the line at family planning. When it comes to the abortion part of family planning — the aspect that gets the most attention — many Americans feel downright ambivalent, in favor one day, not so sure the next, and all of it dependent on trimester and that sort of thing. Yet in the self-serving leaks coming from the White House, it was abortion where the president made his stand. Abe Lincoln he is not.
Obama is the post-ideological practitioner of the Non-Doctrine Doctrine. That’s okay. I too am doctrineless, unless it is the doctrine of “it depends.” There is no single power out there for us to impress or intimidate with a doctrine — neither Monroe regarding the Americas nor Carter regarding the Middle East and its oil. You tell me the problem and I’ll tell you based on the facts, not some doctrine, whether we should intervene. Always, it depends.
The trouble with this non-doctrine doctrine is that it lacks poetry. It is up to the president as leader to provide that poetry. He has to make us connect his values to our own. Obama could do that in the presidential campaign because he was the thrilling apotheosis of the multi-century struggle against racism. You could not vote for Obama and not have felt that somehow you had fired a shot in the Civil War or ridden a freedom bus into the Jim Crow South. That was a revolution, just as grand as this year’s in Egypt — and it will, for sure, end better.
Now, though, it is past time to move on and lead. Slogans such as “win the future” are rhetorical cotton candy. They melt in your mouth and leave nothing behind. The president needs to say explicitly what he wants and how he’s going to get there. “Change” won’t do anymore. It’s leadership we need.