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Obama the Weak

The perils of a sycophantic administration.

Sep 14, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 48 • By FRED BARNES
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There are three President Obamas. There's the Obama who defers, the one who dithers, and the one who's out of touch. The Obama presidencies have one thing in common. They're all weak.

Obama is a great talker. He's also what used to be called a "press hound." That's a politician who can't go a single day without lavish attention from the media. But talking and availability aren't the same as leading. Nearly eight months into his presidency, Obama has yet to offer strong leadership, on anything.

What's more, Obama is a liberal who's surrounded himself with liberals. His weakness makes his liberal domestic policies more vulnerable than they otherwise would be. For a moment after Obama's inauguration, Republicans were fearful of him. They quickly found that opposing him is safe and fruitful.

But presidential weakness is dangerous in foreign affairs. Obama has been deferential to adversaries and tough on allies. He's pretended problems with Russia are as much America's fault as Russia's, taken human rights off the table with China, begged Iran to talk with him. This hasn't been productive. He's come down hard on Israel and Honduras. That hasn't been productive either.

Obama's tendency to defer has been most dramatic in his relationship with congressional Democrats, perhaps the most unswervingly liberal and partisan group in the nation. "If the president leads the way, his party can hardly resist him," Woodrow Wilson wrote. Obama has flipped that notion. His party in Congress leads, and he hardly resists at all.

The deference started early.

Last December, weeks before the president took office, House speaker Nancy Pelosi set sharp limits on the role of Obama and his aides on Capitol Hill. A few days later, Democrats ignored the Obama team's desire for a tax credit for small businesses in the "stimulus" bill. It might have attracted Republican support and fulfilled the president's promise to be bipartisan.

Post-inauguration, Senate and House Democrats embarrassed the new president by sending him an omnibus spending bill studded with thousands of earmarks. Though he'd criticized earmarks, Obama knuckled under and signed the measure. On the cap-and-trade environmental legislation, House Democrats threw out Obama's cherished plan to raise revenue by auctioning off emission rights. They decided to give most of the rights away, mainly to political allies.

And after Obama reached a deal with pharmaceutical companies--they pledged $80 billion in cut-rate drugs for seniors in exchange for favored treatment in health care legislation--congressional leaders dismissed the deal as not binding on them. This prompted Obama to declare it nonbinding on him, too.

His biggest concession to congressional Democrats, though, has been to let them write the legislation on his three biggest initiatives: the stimulus, health care reform, and cap and trade. I can't think of another president--not one of the previous 43--who willingly yielded so much power to Congress.

Presidential scholar Charles Dunn of Regent University characterizes Obama as "a leader who's not leading. He's like a coach of a football team who says to go out and call your own plays while I watch from the sidelines. So things are chaotic."

Presidential dithering has abetted the chaos. When Obama addresses Congress and the nation this week, he intends to spell out "in clear, understandable terms what our administration wants to happen with regard to health care," according to Vice President Biden. Well, it's about time. The president has been unclear for months as four congressional committees approved health care bills in his name. Only now, weeks after his own deadline for final passage, is Obama prepared to reveal his bottom line on Obamacare--that is, unless he balks.

The president has dithered in another sense, too, actually hiding his views on matters inside his administration. As the war in Afghanistan has worsened, Obama has said practically nothing on the subject. (He did call it "a war of necessity.") When Attorney General Eric Holder decided to hire a special prosecutor to investigate CIA officials who interrogated captured terrorists--a step the president had earlier opposed--the White House claimed it was solely Holder's call.

But is Obama really out of touch with the country? Yes, indeed, and it's self-inflicted. In The Age of Reagan, his new book on the Reagan presidency, Steven Hayward argues that administrations rife with factional infighting over policies are more successful than what he calls "sycophantic" administrations. "Fractiousness in an administration is a sign of health," Hayward writes, citing Reagan's feuding but successful White House. He thinks serious disputes over issues lead to better policies.

Maybe they do. I suspect they have a more important value. Different factions help an administration stay attuned to grass-roots opinion outside Washington in a way the Obama White House hasn't been. Obama and his advisers, for example, were the last to learn that the proposed government-run health insurance plan is a deal-killer for many millions of Americans.

By "sycophantic," Hayward means an administration with one view of the big issues, little dissent, and an inflated sense of the president's appeal. That's the Obama administration: pretty much all liberalism, all Obama, all the time. The one real disagreement among the president's top advisers is whether to deploy more troops to Afghanistan. And this quarrel has only recently erupted.

What the Obama team doesn't understand is the limit of the president's appeal. His base is the liberal wing of the Democratic party, which is less than one-quarter of the voting public. Yet his aides believe he's able to captivate and convince a far larger audience. That he's been failing at this for months hasn't stopped the White House from trotting the president out again and again with nothing new to say, as if it's the only option. Perhaps, in a sycophantic administration, it is.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.