Obama should lead, not just react

July 18, 2011


— A prominent Bush administration official was talking privately about Barack Obama last week: He’s probably going to win in 2012, this Republican said. He deserves credit for “going big” in the budget talks and capturing the center of the debate. But why isn’t he projecting his goals and philosophy more clearly to the country? Why does he so often seem to react, rather than lead?

Given Obama’s strengths, this Republican observer continued, his White House advisers should already be thinking about what Obama can achieve in a second term. They should begin drafting plans and policies, but even more, they should be communicating the president’s vision. Instead, every day at this White House seems like “The Perils of Pauline,” with one cliffhanger after another.

The debt-limit crisis is a scary example of this tendency to follow, rather than lead. Through 2010, the Obama White House kept its distance from deficit-reduction proposals, and when it finally entered the fray, it was in the person of Vice President Biden. One official told me bluntly last year that floating proposals too early was a loser, politically.

So Obama waited. His policy ideas, now that they’re public, look pretty solid. But rather than uniting the country behind a vision for reforming entitlements and taxes, he looks like a man being dragged into church by a firebrand preacher named Eric Cantor. The Republicans look bad, but so does Obama.

This communications gap is apparent in foreign policy, too. Obama may have a vision for why American troops should remain in Afghanistan until 2014, but he doesn’t convey it forcefully. This is his war, but he embraces it reluctantly and without clear definition. He places equal emphasis on withdrawing troops and staying the course, which confuses people.

The same is true for the Arab Spring. Obama has had it about right, in policy terms. U.S. strategy is a sensible mix of pragmatism and principle. America supports the movements for democratic change in the autocratic republics, such as Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Syria. It respects the more conservative traditions of the pro-Western monarchies and sheikdoms, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Bahrain, Morocco and Kuwait. This distinction isn’t complicated, it just needs to be explained.

The administration’s caution on Syria makes sense, too. The goal is a transition to a new, democratic Syria without a sectarian war that would be worse than Iraq’s. The administration raised the pressure by sending Ambassador Robert Ford to Hama, scene of the horrific 1982 massacre. The message: This time, the world is watching.

Arguments that Ford should be pulled, or that Obama should throw some fiery rhetoric at the Syrian dynamite keg, strike me as very wrong. That said, Obama needs to explain his vision of democratic transition, and work with the Syrian opposition to achieve it, peacefully.

The world looks to America in times like this. Governments and business leaders want a basic framework, so they can make decisions. What they get from the Obama White House, too often, is silence.

“Just tell us what you want,” an influential foreign visitor said last week of the Obama administration. It’s a comment you would hear in most capitals of Europe and Asia. Global leaders are accustomed, after Reagan, Clinton and the two Bushes, to U.S. presidents who have a few basic themes and repeat them, several times a week. From this White House they get a big speech every six months.

I had a chance last week to watch two world-class communicators, television megastar Oprah Winfrey and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. It’s hard to think of two more different people, but they share a common ability to connect with an audience. Their comments at an Allen & Co. conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, were off the record. But both express an up-by-your-bootstraps philosophy, and an optimism about America that’s infectious.

Christie is an especially intriguing figure. He’s the anti-Obama: overweight and seemingly unworried about it, where the president is lean and fastidious; disarmingly frank, where Obama is cautious. Christie is a favorite of tea party Republicans, but I heard enthusiastic comments about him from a half-dozen Democrats. Christie will be a formidable candidate if he runs for president one day.

The Obama White House is blessed, if that’s the right word, in having such an irresponsible Republican opposition in Congress. As the debt-limit day of reckoning approaches, the GOP will pay for its reckless, roundhouse swings. But the president needs to start acting like a fighter and a leader, rather than a punching bag.

David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


BornAgainAmerican 6 years, 7 months ago

Why David...didn't you know? Dear Leader is leading from behind. Of course, the Annointed One is aware that mere mortals may understand that concept.

beatrice 6 years, 7 months ago

"Dear Leader" and "the Anointed One."

If you haven't learned by now, he wasn't anointed, he was elected. I just have to laugh when people can't even be original in their lame attempts at insulting the good Americans who voted for our President.

beatrice 6 years, 7 months ago

I'm assuming you meant the post, and not the threaded reaction, correct?


Kendall Simmons 6 years, 7 months ago

Oh, come on now. Either you were being troll-ish or trying to be funny but not succeeding. No need to get in a snit when someone calls you on it.

Maddy Griffin 6 years, 7 months ago

I think he's done a damn fine job considering the mess he was handed. His plate has been full since day One. He's kept the promises he made during his last campaign,health care reform, DADT,bringing an end to the wars, capturing Osama, etc. I can't wait to give him my vote again.THAT ONE 2012!!

jafs 6 years, 7 months ago

If he did in fact act more strongly to project his ideas, I'm sure that many people who currently criticize him for being "weak" would then criticize him for being too forceful, and pushing his "agenda" on the American people.

He just can't win with some folks.

beatrice 6 years, 7 months ago

He has, in fact, been accused repeatedly of "jamming his legislation down our throats!". He was forceful with his health care legislation and look how people whined.

lunacydetector 6 years, 7 months ago

has obama's depression made you better off today than 3 years ago? i had a prominent democrat in washington who was part of the clinton presidency tell me obama will lose because he doesn't bring stability to the office and it puts the american people on edge.

...you see i sound as believable as this op-ed.

jafs 6 years, 7 months ago

The real question is did he do a better job than McCain/Palin would have, and is he doing a better job than the next Republican candidate will do?

jafs 6 years, 7 months ago

Those are the questions that anybody who votes must ask.

If one wants to try to make a good decision.

some_random_person 6 years, 7 months ago

Your last sentence is what it wrong with this country. You're looking for a handout, you don't want to work for anything. You want rich people to make the money and gov't to give their money to you just because you're a U.S. citizen. You want money? Go to work and MAKE some, don't sit on your butt and wait for a check from the feds. That's pathetic sir, not to mention communistic....

some_random_person 6 years, 7 months ago

I didn't take it as sarcasm (obviously). But it's sad that some people are actually that way in this country....

beatrice 6 years, 7 months ago

Really? I've never once heard anyone say that they voted for Obama because he would take money from the rich and give it to them. Never. Have you actually heard that? Yes, it is sad that there are some in this country who don't feel they have an actual opportunity to make something of themselves and end up living off government handouts, but what kind of life is that in reality? Most would likely give it up in a heartbeat to have the opportunities afforded those who grow up in wealthy communities with good schools and better chances for success. Don't you think?

jafs 6 years, 7 months ago

Let's assume for a minute that lunacy's view has some validity (which I'm not sure it does) and that we are worse off today than when Obama took office.

If we would have been in even more trouble if McCain had won, then voting for Obama was a better decision.

Carol Bowen 6 years, 7 months ago

Yes and yes. President Obama has a more representative and overarching presence suited for the presidency. He may have some biases, but he at least tries to govern all. I could not say the same for McCain/Palin or any of the current Republican candidates. The Republican candidates have single-minded agendas.

Bizowner 6 years, 7 months ago

He hasn't brought any stability to the office or this country. The writer is right on as our President doesn't lead. He doesn't stand for anything. He speaks the most rhetoric of anyone that has ever held that office. If he actually had the ability to stand for something other than being a motivational speaker on the campaign trail, we might see progress. That simply hasn't happened.

beatrice 6 years, 7 months ago

Hussein, Hussein, Hussein.

We know why so many really don't like this president.

Linda Endicott 6 years, 7 months ago

It could be...but in your case, I'm pretty sure it's not...

beatrice 6 years, 7 months ago

What do his policies, which are far from being radical left, have to do with his middle name? Why do you use his middle name all of a sudden? What are you trying to prove by doing so?

You can't say it is about his policies, because it isn't, so why do it? What is your point, other than he doesn't have an apparently "traditional-sounding" American name?

jafs 6 years, 7 months ago

That's fascinating - being against British colonialism is now a "radical" position.

I guess that would make our founding fathers "radical".

beatrice 6 years, 7 months ago

He used the entire name, not just the middle name. Nowhere will you find him signing his name or going by the title "President Hussein."

However, it doesn't matter what you call him. You have made it obvious why you are upset. You said it yourself -- his father was from Kenya.

jafs 6 years, 7 months ago

And had the audacity to oppose British colonialism.

beatrice 6 years, 7 months ago

So what do you call someone who is so far right wing that they don't even consider themselves part of the right wing?

Ubama? Sorry, but that is President of the United States Barack Obama.

monkeyhawk 6 years, 7 months ago

Just curious as to why bea takes criticism of the prez as a personal affront? That is kind of weird. Could it b b is blinded by the light?

Linda Endicott 6 years, 7 months ago

I get so sick of people coming on here and thinking they're just so, so clever..."annointed one", "blinded by the light", "Ubama"...

Show a little respect..for the office, if not for the person....whether you like it or not, the man was elected to the office that he now holds...which is a far cry more than you could have accomplished if you had run...

For all the ways that I disagreed with George Bush, I still called him George Bush...and not some lame insult every time I opened my mouth...

Grow up, why don't you...

Linda Endicott 6 years, 7 months ago

I would, for once, like to see someone being adult enough on here to call him President Obama...

The same way I always said President Bush...I didn't like his policies, disagreed with him a lot of the time, but still called him President Bush...he was elected and he was my president, whether I liked it or not...

Or maybe your mother never taught you that you can disagree with someone and still treat them with respect...

Again...grow up...

monkeyhawk 6 years, 7 months ago

Just curious as to why crazy takes criticism of the prez as a personal affront? That is kind of weird. Could it be crazy is blinded by the light?

If defending the defenseless is your idea of a grown up, then call me Peter Pan. Besides this "grown up" talking point thing is already becoming trite.

Linda Endicott 6 years, 7 months ago

I see you have no common courtesy, either...

Perhaps you are the one that has become "trite"...since you use the same old jargon in the same old way every single time...

monkeyhawk 6 years, 7 months ago

Coming from the queen of ad hominem pit bulls. Can't teach an old MO new tricks. Normally I just brush by your stuff. I will continue to do so, since all you do is attack and offer very little in the way of substance. I, at least, am interesting, but nobody gave you permission to reply to me anyway.

Linda Endicott 6 years, 7 months ago

Actually, you're about as interesting as pond scum...

No, I take that back...it's too big an insult to the pond scum...

And I don't need your permission...lol

Flap Doodle 6 years, 7 months ago

In other news related to the current regime's projects Gunwalker and Fast & Furious: "...Congressman Darrell Issa and Senator Charles Grassley continue to unravel this plot. Along with the emails proving that the ATF was using “walked” guns to justify stricter gun laws, they sent a letter to embattled Attorney General Eric Holder asking the following: Is there any other evidence suggesting that ATF of DOJ officials discussed how Operation Fast and Furious could be used to justify additional regulatory authorities for the ATF? IF so, are there any such indications prior to July 14, 2010? Rather than collecting additional information on law-abiding gun owners, what steps have you taken to ensure that the ATF is better able to act on the information it already possesses to interdict the flow of firearms to criminals?..." Much more at: http://nicedeb.wordpress.com/2011/07/16/latest-gunwalker-news-will-holder-take-the-fall/

monkeyhawk 6 years, 7 months ago

... cold, dead hands.

I'm not sure if this was in your link, snap:

"The plot thickens. It appears that stimulus money went to help fund Fast and Furious….specifically $10 million dollars and it’s written in black and white on the stimulus bill. (OpenCongress) ‘For an additional amount for ‘State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance’, $40,000,000, for competitive grants to provide assistance and equipment to local law enforcement along the Southern border and in High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas to combat criminal narcotics activity stemming from the Southern border, of which $10,000,000 shall be transferred to ‘Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Salaries and Expenses’ for the ATF Project Gunrunner.’

Wait….didn’t Obama sign the stimulus bill? Doesn’t he continue to claim that he knew nothing about Project Gunrunner?"


One of the best things to come from this is that CBS and Sharyl Attkisson broke the story. Can NB & AB avoid reporting on it when they were scooped by one of their own?


Mike Ford 6 years, 7 months ago

let's see. you have the legislative, the judicial, and the executive branches of government. of course centralized government destroying dimwits can't digest this. the legislative people should be coming up with legislation....do they... well it depends on who they're answering to....you can't blame Obama when his adversaries are tea party dimwits who are more poised to bring down the government than reform it. why is there no compromise??? because when you have dimwits who are horny for destruction they ignore the 150 point drop in the dow this morning. Tpers and Dumblicans...if advocate destruction you pay the price. it's not Obama's fault if the dimwits fail to grasp this. If you're sent to Washington you're sent there to legislate, not obstruct. you hear that obstructionists???

Linda Endicott 6 years, 7 months ago

It figures...neither of the two of you were listening during civics class, were you?

beatrice 6 years, 7 months ago

Being deaf and dumb is not funny to me. Being dumb all by itself can be. It has more than one meaning after all.

beatrice 6 years, 7 months ago

It was a play on words. Deal with it.

beatrice 6 years, 7 months ago

Actually BAA, you can only be civil for so long, but when it is not returned in kind after a while you have to move on. Some people aren't looking for real conversation no matter how hard others might try. They are just on here to insult and be silly. His comments have indeed been dumb. That is on him, not me.

Also, given the tenor of notleft's comments to date, I don't actually believe a word he writes.

beatrice 6 years, 7 months ago

Who called you a man? You might be male, but I would never go as far as calling you a man.

I'm just curious how long this latest incarnation will last.

some_random_person 6 years, 7 months ago

Whether you fall on the side of conservative or liberal, you can agree that this administration hasn't exactly been a beacon of leadership. That's what I'm looking for in a president (or any elected official for that matter), leadership. In times like these we need leaders to guide our country out of turmoil. Instead, what do we have? A bunch of elected officials acting like 5th-graders playing the blame game, and it's happening on both sides of the aisle. They squabble like children while they solve nothing....

some_random_person 6 years, 7 months ago

And for the record I'm not too confident that McCain would have been a good leader either. We just have a bad batch of politicians everywhere in Washington, no born leaders that I can see...

beatrice 6 years, 7 months ago

So you mean all the Republicans did vote for raising the debt ceiling? Thanks for letting us know the Republicans are just posturing now.

jafs 6 years, 7 months ago

Of course they are.

But so are/have been the Democrats, if they voted against the debt increase then, and are for it now.

It's silly partisan nonsense on both sides.

Brian Laird 6 years, 7 months ago

I'm going to call BS on this. The only place this quote seems to appear is as a right-wing internet meme. Some sites claim it is an English translation of a article in German from the Prager Zeitung from April 28, 2010, which is a real German-language newspaper in Prague. However, there is never a link to the original article, and if you go to that newspaper's web site there appears to be no such article even though the archives do go back that far.

Brian Laird 6 years, 7 months ago

That's is an interesting strategy. When caught in a lie, just mumble a nonsequitor. Sigh....

jonas_opines 6 years, 7 months ago

"it was a poor choice on my part."

Par for the course then, penders?

Brian Laird 6 years, 7 months ago

What denial? And what is "liberal" or "conservative" about expecting people to be honest about the origin of what they post. I called BS on your supposed quote, which you obviously cannot verify, so you go on the attack. That is the BS.

Shane Garrett 6 years, 7 months ago

The legislative branch is the one branch of the U.S. government and it is the one charged with creating the laws that hold our society together. Article I of the Constitution established Congress, the collective legislative body made up of the Senate and the House. So the President can truely be a community leader. A leader of a community of over inflated egos and short sighted legislative nitwits. And as Tensacks recounts: We have met the enemy and we are it.

tbaker 6 years, 7 months ago

Back in the months following the 2008 election, I saw a lot of "elections have consequences" statements from the left on this blog, and again in 2010 from the other side of the spectrum.

2012 will be no different; that phrase will be out in force again. Wally and Tensacks are correct: We the people sent these folks to DC. The question is which kind are there going to be more of after the next election? The shrink government kind or the grow/sustain government kind? There isn't enough of either to break the gridlock and get anything resembling a "big" deal accomplished until after the election. This can will most definately be kicked down the road.

We are running out of road though...

Carol Bowen 6 years, 7 months ago

"The debt-limit crisis is a scary example of this tendency to follow, rather than lead. Through 2010, the Obama White House kept its distance from deficit-reduction proposals, and when it finally entered the fray, it was in the person of Vice President Biden. One official told me bluntly last year that floating proposals too early was a loser, politically."

This was actually an interesting column. I do not necessarily agree that president Obama is following rather than leading. I think Obama has more faith in democracy and the role of the legislative branch than his critics do. Unfortunately, the legislative branch is faltering, so now is a good time for the president to forget his idealism, present a proposal or two, and bring this debate to closure.

Godot 6 years, 7 months ago

This story begins with a questionable premise, and that discredits the entire argument. Ignatius quotes an unidentified person on a matter that has absolutely nothing to do with national security, or an ongoing criminal investigation....in fact, it is pure opinion. It is convenient that he does not identify the Bush administration source, so that other so-called journalists can interview the source and confirm Ignatius' story. My strong suspicion is that this is just another Obamabot media plant. Useless.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.