Monday, in National Journal, Ron Fournier considered President Obama’s odd scheduling choices over the last several days. Why, Fournier asks, did the White House see a game of pool as more presidential than crisis management? Fournier then ventured an answer:
[Obama] and his advisers are so certain about their moral and political standing that they believe it’s enough to make a declaration. If we say it, the public should believe it.
Indeed. But this dysfunction is not only due to arrogance. Ultimately, it’s a symptom of the administration’s strategic incompetence. Since January 2009, administration officials have never wavered in their belief that Obama’s rhetoric is a portal to policy utopia. If only, they assert, Obama would speak more, his agenda would come to fruition.
It’s easy to understand their assumption. Many of Obama’s White House staffers are inside-the-bubble warriors who served in the 2008 rapture-like presidential campaign and who helped haul Obamacare to legislative victory (if not popular support). These insiders are the Obama dream, and his “change” is one they will always believe in. Their self-righteousness feeds what I call the Obama matrix.
Correspondingly, White House officials simply can’t understand that many Americans have escaped the matrix and shut their ears to the standard Obamaite spin. Most damaging, these officials don’t seem to realize that rhetoric detached from action is the opposite of persuasive. And Obama’s failure of leadership isn’t limited to any particular issue. Just speak to congressional staffers. In public, Democrats will praise the president’s initiatives and Republicans will criticize him. In private, Republicans will still criticize Obama, but they’ll also offer possibilities for compromise. But what’s most interesting is what Democrats say behind closed doors (or in bars). Their typical complaint? Outreach from the White House is pathetic.
This has been a long-brewing problem for the president, and it’s fostered much rancor in D.C. Take John McCain’s disdain for the administration. In a 2012 interview with the Hill’s Alexander Bolton, McCain explained the alienating effect of Obama’s photo-op-style approach. “Let’s get real here,” McCain said. “There was never any outreach from President Obama or anyone in his administration to me.”
Were it only McCain, one might write off the complaint. But it isn’t just McCain. The Obama administration’s anti–charm offensive began in 2009, when the president withdrew without explanation the appointment of retired General Anthony Zinni as ambassador to Iraq. Obama has continued the pattern of snubs, keeping an unfriendly distance from Congress and even from his cabinet — in his memoir, former defense secretary Bob Gates provides a litany of examples of the Obama White House’s paranoia toward Pentagon personnel.
While the penchant for style over substance — the failure to build real relationships — is a source of Obama’s dysfunction at home, it’s also hindering him abroad. His foreign policy overall has utterly failed to bind rhetoric to actions taken in pursuit of strategic objectives. Take the president’s statement on Ukraine Monday morning. Obama warned that there would be “costs” for Russia’s behavior. Does Putin, or anyone, imagine his words will be backed up by effective action? Clausewitz, writing on war, famously emphasizes that war is only a means of pursuing a policy goal: “The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose.” Policy and rhetoric are effective when deployed together in pursuit of a goal. Yet, for the Obama administration, from the Middle East to Ukraine, American policy exists, rudderless, as pure rhetoric. And the world learns this lesson: If you like ignoring American red lines, you can keep doing so.
Whether it’s domestic or foreign policy, Obama has failed to build a bridge between words and action. Without such a bridge, the administration will sink in a morass of increasingly pointless speeches.