Michael Gerson: Too detached to lead? President needs a strategy

By Michael Gerson, Washington Post

Published: Mon, Aug. 25, 2014, 8:15 p.m. MDT

 For years, Obama has reacted to events in the Middle East, and lately been at their mercy. Now he must provide some assurance that he is shaping events with a strategy that culminates in the end of the Islamic State.

For years, Obama has reacted to events in the Middle East, and lately been at their mercy. Now he must provide some assurance that he is shaping events with a strategy that culminates in the end of the Islamic State.

(Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)

WASHINGTON — Having once served a president, I don't begrudge any president a vacation. There is, in fact, no escape from this relentless job. A change of scenery does not involve a change in responsibilities, or even a release from the essence of the president's routine. The intelligence briefings stalk him. Presidential respites are measured in hours, not days or weeks — say, a few hours on a golf course. And the public would be selfish and shortsighted to demand those downtime hours, which are necessary for humans to function.

The problem for President Obama has come in managing the symbolic aspect of his office. Playing a round at the Farm Neck Golf Club was appropriate. Giving a speech after the murder of James Foley was necessary. It is the immediate juxtaposition of beheading and golfing that should have raised questions.

Those questions would have been so obvious to any reasonably competent deputy press secretary that the incident raises further issues: Is there really no one on the White House staff with the standing to confront Obama when he is about to make a self-evident mistake? Is he surrounded by sycophancy? Or has re-election liberated Obama from all considerations of symbolism or appropriateness?

One gets the impression of a particular message being sent. The president is so aggressively indifferent to appearances that he doesn't really seem indifferent at all. He appears to be telling the media, his political critics and the world: You can criticize me, vilify me, challenge me; but you are powerless, at least, to change my tee time. It shows resilience. Yet there is a fine line between not giving an inch and not giving a damn.

Our view of presidential character is often conditioned by the direction of events. When a president is succeeding, he might be regarded as principled. When he is failing, the same leader may be viewed as stubborn. A president who is considered flexible in success might be called slippery in failure. A leader's virtues can become his weaknesses — or maybe they are inseparable. Our admiration becomes our indictment.

President Obama rose to prominence, in part, because of a certain aloofness and emotional distance. The contrast to his opponent in the 2008 election, John McCain, was particularly vivid during the financial collapse. McCain seemed excitable and unsteady; Obama was cool and self-contained.

In political success, Obama's manner was reassuring. As his failures have multiplied, he seems disconnected and tone-deaf. It must be frustrating for the president to know he is actually the same leader, and tempting to display a defiant unconcern.

But this is not just a matter of image management. Obama now faces the defining crisis of his presidency — the rise of a terrorist state at the heart of the Middle East with global ambitions of violence — which suddenly demands a different set of attributes: resolution, clarity, inspiration. The traits and views that aided his political rise — an emotional and geopolitical disengagement — are not sufficient to the moment. Even some of his traditional supporters have begun to fear that the president's golfing has become not merely a respite but a symbol of detachment.

As the president has vacationed, senior officials have talked of efforts to "stall," "contain," "degrade," "defeat" and "destroy" the Islamic State. These words actually mean very different things, indicating either a major internal administration debate or utter confusion. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel describes the Islamic State as an "imminent threat to every interest we have." But a senior defense official was recently quoted as saying, "There is no policy" to deal with this imminent threat.

In his public statements, Obama has carefully avoided resolving or clarifying his administration's ultimate policy goal. He has consistently downplayed America's incremental (but escalating) military actions. He has promised to be "relentless" toward some unspecified end. He has argued that the Islamic State has "no place in the 21st century" — as though the appeal of radical Islamism should have faded like bell bottoms and disco.

For years, Obama has reacted to events in the Middle East, and lately been at their mercy. Now he must provide some assurance that he is shaping events with a strategy that culminates in the end of the Islamic State. As a matter of policy, this will require recognition that Iraq and Syria are one theater in a long-term struggle that does not fade when we ignore it. As a matter of leadership, it will require a certain trumpet, for a change.

Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

1. worf
Mcallen, TX,
Aug. 25, 2014

In football, the coach needs a game plan to execute his moves.

How can a coach create a game plan if he's constantly on a golf course, fund raiser, and misses most of his staff meetings?

2. azreader1
tucson, AZ,
Aug. 25, 2014

I wonder if that more than anything, President Obama is very angry for even having to deal with something so utterly intractable, unattractive and threatening to the world, and his legacy, as Islamic terrorism as manifested by ISIS. And that's without Iran's continued march toward nuclear weapons capability also sharing the current news cycle's front page.

3. Sven
Morgan, UT,
Aug. 25, 2014

It's funny watching the liberal media panic over Obama's coldness towards others. Even Maureen Dowd was shocked at Obama's lack of empathy towards James Foley, when he immediately went back to the golf course after his empty words to Mr. Foley's parents and the nation.

4. Mainly Me
Werribee, 00,
Aug. 25, 2014

Barry does have a strategy. Has anyone ever heard of the socialists, Cloward and Piven? Their idea was to drastically increase the welfare rolls to the point that it collapsed the government. I'd say this is exactly what Barry is trying to do.

5. The Educator
South Jordan , UT,
Aug. 26, 2014

Obama has taken 1/4th the amount of vacation time as Bush.

Where were your concerns then? Why did history seem to begin merely in 2009?