Is Obama Bold Enough For You Now?

Remember when the problem everyone had with Barack Obama was how passive he was? In late October, Charles Krauthammer lamented Obama's "observer presidency with its bewildered-bystander pose." Dana Milbank agreed that "The real problem with Obama is not overreach but his tendency to be hands-off." Milbank quoted Mitt Romney approvingly for his criticism of Obama for not being sufficiently "focused" on the Ebola threat (I guess a more focused president would have managed to avert the thousands of American Ebola deaths—oh wait). Anonymous Hillary Clinton aides tell reporters that unlike the "passive" Obama, their boss is going to be "aggressive" and "decisive" when it comes to foreign crises. Leon Panetta writes a memoir criticizing Obama for being passive, but the specific criticisms look a lot like, "I told the President to do something, and he didn't follow my advice!"

This isn't a new complaint. For years, pundits who are supposed to have some sense of how politics actually works have looked at the institutional and political limits surrounding policymaking and whined, "Why won't Obama lead?" as though he could do things like make Republicans agree with him if only he were to exert his will more manfully. A close cousin of this inane belief is the idea that Obama could solve some complicated problem by giving a really good speech about it, an idea that has had disturbing currency among Obama's liberal critics.

Perhaps some of this comes from the contrast between Obama and his predecessor, who called himself "the decider," so decisive was he. During his time in office, reporters and headline writers were forever referring to George W. Bush's proposals and actions as "bold," almost regardless of what they entailed. And some of them actually were. Invading Iraq? Now that was bold. Had Obama decided to invade Syria, that would have been bold, too. But we probably wouldn't be too pleased with the results.

Even when Obama has done bold things, he's seldom described that way. Perhaps it's because of his generally calm countenance; I'm really not sure. But his career has been characterized by periods of patience interrupted by calculated risks taken when the timing seemed right. So maybe it's because many of the "bold" things Obama has done, like running for president after only a couple of years in the Senate or proposing ambitious health care reform, actually worked out. In retrospect, everyone thinks an electoral or legislative success was pre-ordained, and the sage observer saw it coming all along. Perhaps if Obama crashed and burned in dramatic ways more often, he'd get more credit for boldness.

But now, with two years remaining in his presidency and faced with a Congress unified under Republican control, Obama doesn't look so passive. He's using executive authority to grant legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants, he's making agreements with China on carbon reductions, he's issuing regulations on ozone. Of course, the same conservatives who derided him for timidity are appalled at what a tyrant they now think he's being. Could it be that nobody really cares whether he's being too bold or too passive, and those complaints are just a cover for their substantive disagreements with whatever he's doing (or not doing) at a particular moment?  

If there's an area where you think Obama hasn't done what he should have, go ahead and make that criticism. You might be right. There may be issues on which he's allowed the status quo to continue when you think more aggressive moves were called for, and you could be right about that too. But presidents constantly make choices to pursue some paths and not others, to allow some policies to remain in place while trying to change others, to start some political fights that they think look winnable while avoiding others that don't. If you think some issue ought to be higher on his agenda, the fact that it isn't is probably just because he doesn't agree with you on that particular point, not because of some broader orientation toward passivity that is holding him back.

And if you're pleased that he's moving on immigration and climate change, is it because you think the things he's doing are worthwhile, or because you just favor boldness in the abstract? I'll bet it's the former.

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