At this dramatic time, with a world on fire, we look at the president and ponder again who he is. Mr. Obama himself mocked how people see him, according to a remarkable piece this week by Peter Baker in the New York Times. NYT +1.10% “Oh, it’s a shame when you have a wan, diffident, professorial president,” he reportedly said, sarcastically, in a meeting with journalists before his big Syria speech. Zbigniew Brzezinski told Mr. Baker the president’s critics think he’s a “a softy. He’s not a softy.”
Actually, no one thinks he’s a softy. A man who personally picks drone targets, who seems sometimes to enjoy antagonizing congressional Republicans, whose speeches not infrequently carry a certain undercurrent of political malice, cannot precisely be understood as soft.
But we focus on Mr. Obama personality and psychology—he’s weak or arrogant or ambivalent, or all three—and while this is interesting, it’s too fancy. We are overthinking the president.
His essential problem is that he has very poor judgment.
And we don’t say this because he’s so famously bright—academically credentialed, smooth, facile with words, quick with concepts. (That’s the sort of intelligence the press and popular historians most prize and celebrate, because it’s exactly the sort they possess.) But brightness is not the same as judgment, which has to do with discernment, instinct, the ability to see the big picture, wisdom that is earned or natural.
Mr. Obama can see the trees, name their genus and species, judge their age and describe their color. He absorbs data. But he consistently misses the shape, size and density of the forest. His recitations of data are really a faux sophistication that suggests command of the subject but misses the heart of the matter.
You can run down the list. His famous “red line” comment was poor judgment. He shouldn’t have put himself or his country in that position, threatening action if a foreign leader did something. He misjudged the indelible impression his crawl-back would make on the world.
Last month it was the “I don’t have a strategy” statement on the Islamic State. That’s not something an American president attempting to rouse the public and impress the world can say. But he didn’t know.
ObamaCare top to bottom was poor judgment. It shouldn’t have been the central domestic effort of his presidency, that should have been the economy and jobs. He thought his bill could go forward without making Republicans co-own it, thought it would be clever to let Congress write it, thought an overextended and undertalented federal government could execute it. He thought those who told him the website would work were truthful, when he should have been smoking out agendas, incompetence and yes-sir-ism. He shouldn’t have said if you like your doctor you can keep him. That was his domestic red-line comment. It was a product of poor judgment.
The other night, at the end of his Syria speech, he sang a long, off-point aria to the economy. Supposedly it would be ringing and rousing, but viewers looked at each other and scratched their heads. It didn’t belong there. It showed a classic misjudging of his position. The president thinks people are depressed because they don’t understand how good the economy is. Actually right now they are depressed because he is president. It was like Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech. It wasn’t a bad speech, but he wasn’t the person who could give it because voters weren’t thinking malaise was the problem, they were thinking Mr. Carter was. He couldn’t relieve public unhappiness because people had come to think he was the source of it.
Mr. Obama misjudged from day one his position vis-à-vis Republicans on Capitol Hill. He thought they were out to kill him. Some were! That’s Washington. But Republicans in 2009 were more desperate than he understood, and some could have been picked off, because they thought he was the future and they didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history. To get their support on health care he would have had to make adjustments, bend a little so they could play ball without losing all standing and self-respect. He couldn’t do it. He didn’t see their quandary. He allowed them to stand against him with integrity. That was poor judgement!
Libya? Poor judgment. A nation run by a nut was turned into a nation run by many nuts, some more vicious than the dictator they toppled. Russia? The president misread it, which would only have been a mistake, if a serious one, if it hadn’t been for his snotty high-handedness toward those who’d made warnings. To Mitt Romney, in debate, in October 2012: “The 1980s—they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”
He misjudged public reaction to the Snowden revelations, did not understand Americans were increasingly alarmed about privacy and the government.
He can read a poll, but he can’t anticipate a sentiment.
On scandals, and all administrations have them, he says something ringing, allows the withholding of information, and hopes it will all go away. Does Benghazi look to you like it’s going away? Was the IRS’s reputation buttressed by his claims that there wasn’t a “smidgen of corruption” within it, or was its reputation ruined by its stonewalling?
In his handling of the Islamic State the president has been slow to act, slow to move, inconsistent in his statements, unpersuasive, uninspiring. No boots on the ground, maybe boots on the ground but not combat boots, only advisory boots. He takes off the table things that should be there, and insists on weird words like “degrade”—why not just “stop and defeat”?—and, in fact, “ISIL.” The world calls it ISIS or Islamic State. Why does he need a separate language? How does that help?
In another strange, off-point aria, reported by the Times’s Mr. Baker, the president told the journalists that if he were “an adviser” to ISIS, he would have told them not to do the beheadings but to send the hostages home with a note instead. Can you imagine FDR ruminating about how if Hitler wanted to win over Americans he wouldn’t have invaded Poland, he would have softly encircled it and then thrown an unusually boisterous Oktoberfest?
Meanwhile time passes. The president’s own surrogates this week seemed unsure, halting, sometimes confused. A month ago there was a chance to hit the Islamic State hard when they were in the field and destroy not just their arms but their mystique. At this point we are enhancing it. It is the focus of all eyes, the subject of the American debate. Boy do they make us nervous, maybe they’re coming across our borders.
Maybe all this is the president’s clever way of letting time pass, letting things play out, so that in a few months the public fever to do something—he always thinks the public has a fever—will be over. And he will then be able to do little, which perhaps is what he wants.
But none of this looks clever. It looks like poor judgment beginning to end.