President Barack Obama looks at candy on display at Donckers in Marquette, Mich., February 10, 2011 (Pete Souza/White House)
CNN's Gloria Borger has written one of the best pieces about Obama I've read for quite a while. I think she poses the central question of Obama's presidency.
Borger reflects that Obama's naturally cool personality, and his instinctive caution as a politician can be great strengths. His handling of Mubarek now looks near-perfect; helping to edge him out rather than overplaying his hand. But Obama only has one gear, and his style can seem inadequate when a crisis hits, like the oil spill, or when there are massive, urgent issues of national import to be addressed, as with healthcare or entitlement (welfare state) reform.
Borger's point is that he would be a stronger figure - would gain the payoff from his strategic caution - if he were better at signalling what he wants on any particular issue. As she puts it "The argument for caution and patience is better made when the voters actually understand the ultimate goal." It's true; people will put up with delay and confusion if they believe their leader knows exactly where he or she going. Borger continues:
If you don't know what his endgame is, you're left on your own, trying to interpret his guarded moves. It would help to have a guidepost or two, beyond the assumption that he's a smart, and ultimately pragmatic, fellow...Consider the issue of reforming entitlements such as Medicare -- an absolute must to avoid bankrupting the country. On some very high level of abstraction, I suppose we are expected to understand that the president knows we can't go on like this. After all, he appointed a commission to investigate the matter -- alas, he gave them only a cursory nod in his State of the Union speech. And he's spoken vaguely about "getting in the boat" with the GOP to do something about entitlements -- whatever that means. But he did not even minimally address entitlements in his budget.
Of course, says Borger, he may be playing a game in which the GOP are invited to make the first move. But unless voters, including his own supporters, get a stronger idea of his own preferences they are likely to either ignore or fall out with him.
For myself, I really don't know if Obama is bad at signalling his goals, or if he just doesn't know what they are. Like many others I oscillate between believing that Obama is, as Henry Kissinger once suggested, like a chess grandmaster, playing a long, strategic game in which he is several moves ahead of everyone else - and thinking that, behind the curtain, there is just a wet blanket.
Link to Borger's column.