Two instincts — one predictable, the other surprising — help explain the arc of Barack Obama’s presidency. The predictable instinct is Obama’s tendency to overlearn the lessons of history. The second, more surprising but related to the first, is Obama’s frequent audacity deficit.
Every capable leader learns from history. But key moments of the Obama presidency demonstrate that he has erred in precisely the opposite direction, by being overly reluctant to repeat the mistakes of his predecessors.
On the domestic front, the signal episode in this regard involves his hands-off shepherding of the health-care debate through Congress. The (correct) lesson of the Clinton administration was that foisting a top-down behemoth on a balky Congress was a recipe for legislative disaster.
But Obama was so determined not to replay the mistakes of Hillary Clinton et al. that he overcompensated by being unduly aloof from the legislative debate.
For precious months, the administration held back in hopes of allowing Democrat Max Baucus of Montana and Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa to reach a bipartisan deal. The administration was notably reluctant to make clear where it stood on key issues. The discussions dragged on to predictable inconclusion; then Sen. Ted Kennedy’s death and the election of Republican Scott Brown threatened the Democrat’s filibuster-proof majority. The entire enterprise nearly collapsed.
On foreign policy, the signal episode of Obama’s overlearning the lessons of history is . . . pretty much the entirety of his foreign policy. It has been a reaction, understandable enough, to the adventurism of George W. Bush, primarily the ill-advised, ill-fated venture in Iraq.
Bush promised humility yet overreached; Obama vowed realism and yet underplayed the United States’ essential hand in world affairs. Hence the administration’s reluctance to intervene in Libya, the costly dillydallying over whether and how to help the rebels in Syria, the failure to push hard enough for a status of forces agreement that would have allowed U.S. troops to remain in Iraq.
The administration’s instinct to retreat and ignore festering problems has helped contribute to the cataclysmic result now playing out in Iraq. Yes, the original, far graver, sin was the decision to invade. The responsibility of the incumbent president is to deal with the mistakes he inherits.
Yes, obtaining the troop agreement would have been extremely difficult. No, it’s not certain that remaining U.S. forces could have helped avert the current crisis. Yes, the Syrian situation is fiendishly complicated, and coming to the aid of rebels is fraught with danger. But thumb-twiddling and agonizing have helped produce the current disaster, with no good options evident.
This strategy of avoidance and procrastination is also a reflection of Obama’s second instinct, the unexpected absence of presidential audacity. This accusation is certainly not true across the board; on health care, for instance, Obama resolutely ignored the counsel of political advisers who urged him to settle for a less comprehensive, more popular version of health reform. In that instance, Obama was the one who insisted — correctly — on going for the legislative touchdown.
Also on the audacity side of Obama’s ledger are his non-obvious choice to go after Osama bin Laden and his expansive view of executive authority — to achieve domestic goals through regulatory action or, most recently, to ignore congressional directives in the prisoner swap for Bowe Bergdahl.
Obama’s major failure of audacity on the domestic front occurred in his decision to punt on the fiscal responsibility recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles commission that he himself appointed. Saying this causes White House aides’ heads to explode. Endorsing the report, they argue, would have been self-defeating in a partisan environment where anything Obama supports is automatically anathema to Republicans. The subsequent failure of talks to achieve a grand bargain, in this view, proves the fruitlessness of pushing Simpson-Bowles. Perhaps, but it is impossible to know whether the moment was ripe if you chose not to seize it.
In the realm of foreign policy, Obama’s absence of audacity is both self-evident and self-explanatory. Some, especially Democrats, may read this assessment and think: Thank goodness!
That assessment would be more convincing if the fruit of Obama’s hesitation were not so dangerous — not just to suffering civilians elsewhere but to U.S. citizens at home. What happens in Iraq and Syria will not necessarily stay in Iraq and Syria. Many foreign fighters training there have U.S. and European Union passports. The conflagrations overseas inevitably threaten the homeland we have spent trillions, and thousands of lives, to protect. A president ignores this risk at his peril. That lesson of history cannot be overlearned.