Politics & Policy

President ‘Present’

Obama’s pattern of indecisiveness continues — and it has Democrats worried.

Washington is abuzz with talk about how much President Obama has damaged America’s credibility with his indecisiveness on Syria. It’s become accepted fact that Obama’s decision-making style resembles that of an academic convening an unruly seminar whose participants he largely disdains. What he is not is a decisive leader with the ability to bring disparate players together behind a common purpose.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. We had inklings of it a long time ago. Back when Barack Obama was running for president in 2008, Hillary Clinton accused him of “taking a pass” on tough issues when he was in the Illinois state senate, a theme later picked up by Republicans. Its basis is the 129 times he voted “present.” On 36 of those occasions, he was the only one to vote present of the 60 senators. One of those occasions was in 1999, when he twice chose not to vote on a bill protecting sexual-assault victims from having the explicit details of their cases made public without “good cause.” Bonnie Grabenhofer, the president of the Illinois National Organization of Women at the time, said she endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2007 in part because “when we needed someone to take a stand, Senator Obama took a pass.”

Today President Obama’s chaotic indecisiveness is a big part of his challenge in getting both houses of Congress to approve military action in Syria. Republicans are strongly leaning against intervention at this point, but Obama’s real problem may be with Democrats. ABC News reports that several congressional Democrats pushed back against military action against Syria in a conference call with administration officials Monday.

They may not be easy to bring into line. Recall that just two years ago, 70 House Democrats voted against a bill that would have authorized U.S. military action in Libya. Less than two months ago, a total of 111 House Democrats, a clear majority, voted to cut back on funding for National Security Agency surveillance programs.

Since then, further evidence has piled up that Obama is a dithering, indecisive leader willing to deflect making a decision because of what many see as political calculation. It’s one thing when this happens domestically, like when his administration delayed meaningful action by BP and the state of Louisiana to clear up the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010. It’s another when it happens in foreign policy — especially in the Middle East. Obama stood aloof during the Iranian street protests of 2009. In Libya, he delayed a decision for weeks until choosing “to lead from behind,” in the famous words of one adviser. In Egypt, the administration was caught flat-footed not once, but twice, by uprisings.

Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, outlined the pattern way back in 2011 in a Washington Post column:

An administration that lacks a consistent foreign policy philosophy has nevertheless established a predictable foreign policy pattern. A popular revolt takes place in country X. President Obama is caught by surprise and says little. A few days later an administration spokesman weakly calls for “reform.” A few more days of mounting protests and violence follow. Then, after an internal debate that spills out into the media, the president decides he must do something. But hoping to keep expectations low, his actions are limited in scope. By this point, a strategic opportunity is missed and the protesters in country X feel betrayed.

Sounds just like the Syria story we’re seeing today, with the addition of Obama’s foolish “red line” threat should Syrian dictator Bashar Assad use chemical weapons. The pattern of behavior is a key reason why President Obama now has credibility problems — with both parties — on Capitol Hill.

No one should think the president can’t eventually get his way on Syria. Democrats will be reminded that if they help deliver a humiliating defeat for Obama it will not only hurt U.S. credibility abroad but will damage his domestic agenda and perhaps make his participation in the 2014 elections less valuable.

But Democrats who have watched House Republicans scramble to keep their coalition together and deliver majorities now have their own challenge. As David Drucker, congressional correspondent for the Washington Examiner, reports: “This is a rare case of the shoe being on the other foot. This time, the president and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) have to deliver the votes first — if they want the (Syrian) resolution to clear the chamber.”

And as Democratic leaders try to corral those votes, part of the pushback will not just be questions about the advisability of a strike on Syria, but increasing worries that the president they elected is not ready for prime time when it comes to foreign-policy crises. A Democratic congressman who retired years ago once told me that, while he didn’t vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980, he was “profoundly concerned” about how Jimmy Carter might have continued to mishandle U.S. foreign policy — from Afghanistan to Iran — if he’d won a second term that year.

Many Democrats may soon wake up to the fact they may indeed have reelected a Jimmy Carter — or worse. And he has a long 40 months left in his term.

— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for NRO

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

The Sinking Collusion Ship

The entire Trump-Russia collusion narrative was always implausible. One, the Washington swamp of fixers such as Paul Manafort and John and Tony Podesta was mostly bipartisan and predated Trump. Two, the Trump administration’s Russia policies were far tougher on Vladimir Putin than were those of Barack ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Problem with Certainty

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays. Dear Reader (Including those of you having this read to you while you white-knuckle the steering wheel trying to get to wherever you’re going for the ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Worst Cover-Up of All Time

President Donald Trump may be guilty of many things, but a cover-up in the Mueller probe isn’t one of them. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, attempting to appease forces in the Democratic party eager for impeachment, is accusing him of one, with all the familiar Watergate connotations. The charge is strange, ... Read More
World

Theresa May: A Political Obituary

On Friday, Theresa May, perhaps the worst Conservative prime minister in recent history, announced her resignation outside of number 10 Downing Street. She will step down effective June 7. “I have done my best,” she insisted. “I have done everything I can. . . . I believe it was right to persevere even ... Read More
PC Culture

TV Before PC

Affixing one’s glance to the rear-view mirror is usually as ill-advised as staring at one’s own reflection. Still, what a delight it was on Wednesday to see a fresh rendition of “Those Were the Days,” from All in the Family, a show I haven’t watched for nearly 40 years. This time it was Woody Harrelson ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Democrats’ Other Class War

There is a class war going on inside the Democratic party. Consider these two cris de couer: Writing in the New York Times under the headline “America’s Cities Are Unlivable — Blame Wealthy Liberals,” Farhad Manjoo argues that rich progressives have, through their political domination of cities such as ... Read More
Culture

The Deepfake of Nancy Pelosi

You’ve almost made it to a three-day weekend! Making the click-through worthwhile: A quick note about how National Review needs your help, concerns about “deepfakes” of Nancy Pelosi, one of the most cringe-inducing radio interviews of all time, some news about where to find me and the book in the near ... Read More
U.S.

America’s Best Defense Against Socialism

The United States of America has flummoxed socialists since the nineteenth century. Marx himself couldn’t quite understand why the most advanced economy in the world stubbornly refused to transition to socialism. Marxist theory predicts the immiseration of the proletariat and subsequent revolution from below. ... Read More