With his Syria policy careening from inaction to the threat of force to a request for congressional approval to a diplomatic bailout from Russia, the long-vexing puzzle of what makes Barack Obama tick has again come to the fore.
About most presidents, it’s possible to put together a sentence or two that plausibly describes their view of the world and where they sought to take the country. Reagan wanted to rebuild American strength and unleash economic growth at home. The Cold War over, George H. W. Bush, himself no ideologue, was pragmatically looking to shape a “new world order.” Bill Clinton was a “New Democrat” who sought a third way between the old-school liberalism of a Ted Kennedy and the surge of ideological conservatism that nearly engulfed him. George W. Bush found his purpose after 9/11, which was to wage a “global war on terror.”
They were, none of them, enigmatic. They openly advertised who they were, and you had the sense that there wasn’t much swimming in the depths that would come as a huge surprise to those looking at the surface.
One can’t really say this of Barack Obama. He rode his personal charisma to the top office of the land in something like record time. There was no long-established reputation, as there certainly would be with, say, Hillary Clinton or Chris Christie in 2016. He was a historic figure, the first black man to be president. That was a concise and not entirely unsatisfactory answer to the question “Who is he?”—though of course it offered no guide to his principles or plans.
He was also iconic. That famous poster of him speaks volumes. One does not interrogate an icon. Neither of Obama’s opponents in 2008, Hil-lary Clinton or John McCain, could figure out how to solve the problem of demanding answers from him.
The 2008 Obama campaign capitalized on all these elements by having the candidate present himself as a figure transcending partisan politics. This was in one sense preposterous, as the president of the United States is unavoidably head of state, chief of government, and leader of a political party. But in another sense it was a masterstroke, allowing people to see in him what they wanted to see. This united his party, attracted others, and gave his opponents very little to work with. Republicans could assert that he was some kind of secret socialist, but the paucity of evidence made those who asserted it look cranky.
Missing from the Obama persona of 2008, then, was a credo: a concise summary of his beliefs and intentions. Nor did he move to fill that gap in office—or during his reelection campaign. He has given myriad speeches, some of them very thoughtful, yet none fundamentally illuminating in this way.
His second Inaugural Address was illustrative. He presented an account of what “we, the people” of America have long believed and still believe about our country. Characteristically, its substance was a vague progressivism couched in terms of self-evident commonsense. Yet the net effect was to tell us little about Obama himself. What difference did or would he, Obama, make to this sea of “we”? He didn’t really say. George W. Bush’s second Inaugural Address had no shortage of the first-person plural: “We are led, by events and commonsense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.” Notwithstanding the “we,” this was clearly Bush’s own credo, clearly on display in a way that Obama’s never is.
While Obama eschews a direct expression of what he believes, he manages to do so without leaving an impression that there’s no “there” there. It’s not that he is lacking in conviction. It’s that he chooses not to voice the convictions he has. The suit isn’t empty. There’s a man inside it.
Perhaps this should remind us that the purpose of the suit is to cover the man, and to do so in a formal way. Obama wears his presidency. His reticence about what he believes suggests a measure of distance between Obama the president and Obama as observer of his presidency. Obama the president tells us only what he thinks we need to know. And Obama the observer keeps his views to -himself. “President Obama” is a role that Obama knows he is playing. But that role gives us insight into the convictions of Barack Obama only -indirectly. It’s a matter
Perhaps the single most revealing statement of Barack Obama’s presidency is his repeated call (most prominently in a speech announcing the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan) for “nation-building here at home.” It seems clear that Obama’s personal preference was for a presidency devoted to domestic matters; he believes the country has a ways to go to fulfill its founding promises (the theme of his second Inaugural Address). The tenacity with which he pursued health care reform, long past the point at which it was clear that Democrats would pay a heavy political price for its passage, testifies to his view of the importance to be attached to fulfilling the promise of the New Deal. So does his public embrace of the term “Obamacare,” which was an invention of his political opponents intended to be derisory. In the long run, as he evidently sees it, having his name permanently attached to the program that finally begins to make good on universal health care is worthy tribute.
Perhaps his most quoted statement, though he certainly didn’t repeat it, was his unfortunately phrased admonition to small-business owners, “You didn’t build that,” on which opponents pounced. On its own terms, it seemed to belittle the hard work required to run a successful business. In context, it’s a little different but more deeply revelatory. Obama’s point was that someone who runs a small business is not an autonomous entity whose fate lies solely in his own hands. Success depends also on the social conditions in which one operates. In Obama’s apparent view, this backdrop is a precondition of individual success. And, of course, government shapes much of that environment.
I think Obama would agree that “You didn’t build that” applies equally well (and equally clumsily) to his own success. “I have a gift,” he once said of his oratorical skills, and though you could construe such a statement as a boast, it’s probably closer to the mark to see Obama as attributing that aspect of his talent to something other than his own endeavor. There can be no autonomous individual outside a political and social context, and he seems to have taken his mission to be the improvement by government of the context in which individuals thrive or fail to thrive. Obama’s view is about 180 degrees from that of Herbert Hoover, who attributed the progress of society to outstanding individuals and their ability to achieve.
It's noteworthy that even in the phrase “nation-building at home,” Obama gets to the topic of domestic policy only by way of foreign -policy. The world is something one simply must, as president, deal with. Its demands come first. It might be an accident of history, in the sense that Obama came into office with two wars underway. But it is also a reflection of the outsized role of the president of the United States in shaping events all over the world.
And on foreign affairs and the role of the United States in the world, Obama has again failed to provide us a credo. But there have perhaps been enough incidents by now to make a few educated guesses.
Obama brought the Iraq war to a close in a fashion that did about as much as humanly possible to annul its existence in the first place. Uncharacteristically for such a large-scale intervention, the United States has no remaining military presence in Iraq. Supposedly, the reason is that we were unable to conclude a status-of-forces agreement with the Iraqi government. If Obama is the least bit sorry about that, he has given no sign. Hence, the annulment of a war he regarded as wrong and illegitimate.
We don’t have a final answer on Afghanistan, a war Obama has consistently described as necessary in response to 9/11. But what Afghanistan also had, and Iraq lacked, was a great deal of enshrined international legitimacy. Once underway, the war was “legalized” under United Nations Security Council resolutions. It had the support of NATO, our most important alliance, which unanimously decided to view 9/11 in light of Article V of the NATO treaty, which deems an attack on one member as an attack on all. And Congress, as well, authorized military action against those who perpetrated or aided the 9/11 attacks. This authority extended well beyond toppling the Taliban, and the Obama administration relies on it to this day.
Next, consider Libya, an intervention that had similar international backing: two U.N. Security Council resolutions; a request from the relevant regional organization, the Arab League; the support of NATO; an unmistakably noxious regime headed by a man who had avowed mass bloodshed against his own people and who was wanted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. In addition, the U.K. and France were the titular leaders of the effort, giving rise to probably the most-quoted observation about the Obama administration, that it was “leading from behind.” All that was missing was a vote of Congress authorizing the action, which Obama rightly didn’t believe he needed to go ahead.
And now, at last, Syria has come to a head—sort of. Obama showed deep uncertainty about what to do in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons—weakness or fecklessness where resolve should be on display. It looked like Obama the president might find himself leading the nation into a war that Obama the observer personally opposed.
In the nick of time came a vague Russian proposal for Assad’s chemical disarmament. In mushy substance, it was exactly of the kind that George H. W. Bush, Brent Scowcroft, and James A. Baker III rejected out of hand from the Soviets in their attempt to head off a ground war in Iraq in 1991. Obama eagerly embraced it, and Vladimir Putin was happy to see his two-plus years of intransigent opposition to any Security Council action against Assad pay off with Russia’s triumphant resurgence as Middle East kingmaker.
But there is something else: Obama had again determined that he did not need congressional authorization to use military force to punish the Assad regime. He nonetheless asked Congress for such authorization. Why?
Maybe he was just stalling. But I think the decision had a substantive basis. In the absence of congressional authorization for a military attack on Syria, the decision to go ahead would be the decision of President Obama alone. He didn’t have the Security Council or any of the rest of the expressions of international assent he had in the case of Libya. With the surprising and humiliating rebuke to Prime Minister David Cameron by the House of Commons, Obama didn’t even have Britain at his side. The United States was, if not completely alone, certainly at risk of jumping unilaterally into war.
I’m pretty confident that Obama the observer of his presidency does not think an American president or any world leader should take a country to war on his own say-so. Obama also famously said, of his comment that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would cross a red line and “change my calculus,” then favoring nonintervention, “I didn’t set a red line, the world set a red line.” Again, critics spluttered about his denial of the obvious, but Obama may well have been sincere. He believed he was expressing something larger than the declaration of even the president of the United States—namely, the widely shared international opposition to the use of chemical weapons.
At home and abroad, what Obama is all about, finally, is others. An individual or state exists only alongside other individuals and states. He situates individual achievement in the political and social context that gives rise to it, and the actions of a powerful nation in the context of an international community that alone can fully legitimize them. True leadership of the United States in this context is the unwillingness of the American president to go it alone despite his authority to do so. If legitimacy is unavailable through international institutions, then the legitimizing effect of congressional action looms larger. An American president, in the view of the incumbent, should act as non-unilaterally as possible. The Obama credo is maxilateralism.
And what about Syria? The vague substance of the Russian proposal is less important than its service to restart a multilateral process at the United Nations. The real crisis—the potential need for the United States to act on its own—has been averted. As for the scores of thousands of dead civilians, including some who were gassed, well, the United States has done nothing effectual about that for more than two years now, and seems well-positioned to continue doing nothing.
All that remains is the hypothetical question of what Obama would have done if Congress had voted against an attack on Syria. Perhaps Obama would have concluded he must act anyway. But I’d bet that Obama the observer would have counseled his presidential self to stay home, thereby furthering the principle that a war of choice to vindicate an international norm is too consequential a decision for one man to make alone. Even if that man is president of the United States. And especially if it’s a man of such refined sensibilities as his own.
Tod Lindberg is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.