Our Callow Commander-in-Chief

by Charles C. W. Cooke
Why is insouciance Obama’s first response to international crises?

It is at times like these, when he is pushed kicking and screaming into the crucible, that Obama’s callowness shows. For his supporters, that jejune, jocular air has been a plus for almost six years. For the rest of us, it has served as a liability and an irritation. Yesterday, it became a wholesale embarrassment.

On the perpetual-campaign trail, the pattern is familiar. Trotting up to the podium, the president fist-bumps the audience’s stragglers and smiles a toothy and humble grin at those who catch his eye. While speaking, he responds to obsequy with obsequy — “I love you too!” he will tell admirers whose voices rise above the crowd’s — and greets the boos that his speechwriters have sought with faux-surprised entreaties “to vote.” Thematically, his is a simple morality play, of one act and with one star. He is the prophet, illustrative of all that is good and great in the world; his critics antediluvian monsters. Regardless of the topic, the president sells himself as a common-sense-loving moderate patriot who manages at every juncture to insert himself in between the two extremes that are tearing the country apart, and who is adamantly opposed by a wicked, venal enemy that flatly refuses to relinquish its political prerogatives or constitutional claims. In the early years, he stuck mostly to platitudes — to telling his side of the story. Now, he casts his own tale as one of opposition — the new kid in town who is hoping to shake things up in the back rooms of the saloon.

Obama is often caught on the back foot — more often than not being informed of the big political stories by the media and not by his staff. Still, given how quickly the rest of the world cottoned on to what had happened in Ukraine, it is difficult to believe that, when he stepped onto the stage in Delaware yesterday, he was incapable of changing his plans. He did not. Instead, the president spent a grand total of 38 seconds on the downing of the plane, describing what he knew to have been an atrocity as a “tragedy” that “might” have happened, and then going back to slamming Republicans for refusing to agree with him on infrastructure spending, to joking with his adoring fans, and to suggesting that America needed to stop indulging in what the more traditional among us like to refer to as “politics.” It would, as David Freddoso observed, have been as if George W. Bush had continued to read “Why Daddy Is a Republican” after he had learned of the attacks on the Twin Towers.

Even Obama’s traditional allies noticed that this was a little odd. Piers Morgan, no firebreathing right-winger he, tweeted that the president “massively dropped the ball just now. 23 Americans killed and he says ‘it looks like a terrible tragedy’ then back to jokes?” Matt Viser, White House correspondent for the Boston Globe summed up Obama’s reaction thus: “A plane crashed. It may be tragic. We’re trying to see if US citizens were on board. Hey, great to be in Delaware!” Singer Josh Groban — a staunch progressive and vicious critic of the Right — concurred. His verdict: “Bad prep. I was shocked.”

The criticism here is not that Obama did not immediately spring into action, flying as Superman into the air, safety to escort the air traffic to its final destination. Nor is it that Obama was insufficiently bellicose. Instead, the president’s aristarchs were troubled that a major international incident was treated as a mild irritation — as little more than a brief and unwanted overture to the usual fractious stump speech. I am among those who would like to see a dramatically smaller presidency at home.. Were Obama never to grace my television screen again, I would be in no way vexed. But, in foreign relations, I want someone who seems to be on the ball, who looms large in the international imagination, who recognizes that his primary responsibility is to the national defense and not to the nature of domestic policy, and who understands that there is a time for partisan politics and a time for national unity — especially when it is being widely reported that American citizens have been blown out of the sky. The lattermost is a distinction that this president — a man who famously made his national debut pretending to be a uniter — has never matured into observing.

Having given his infrastructure speech for the umpteenth time, Obama then made his way to a couple of fundraisers. One wonders what it would have taken to shake him off this course. Indeed, as Jim Geraghty points out, insouciance is the standard response. “This,” Geraghty writes, “is the president who didn’t address the country for three days after the attempted bombing of an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, who gave a “shout-out” to an audience member moments before his first comments on the Fort Hood shooting, and who attended a campaign rally on September 12, 2012, when most Americans awoke to the news of the murder of four Americans in a terror attack in Benghazi, Libya.”

There is a significant grey area between running around waving your hands in the air and appearing uninterested, and, in the realm of international affairs at least, President Obama has never managed to set foot inside it. It would be nice to believe that a missile that stole the lives of 298 souls could also puncture his bubble. But, in all likelihood, it won’t. For the next two years, this is to be our fate. Indifference, drift, diversion, and fatigue. Hello Cleveland! Hello Brooklyn! Goodbye, yellow brick road.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.