Community organizers like President Barack Obama make great husbands. They listen before making decisions, never insist that it’s their way or the highway, and won’t leave the cap off the toothpaste tube. They consult on the big life stuff such as where to live, and they rarely draw red lines. When they do, they agonize over whether sending the children to bed without dessert sends the right message.
This must make Michelle Obama very happy; Americans, less and less. The president’s community-organizing skills don’t so much make him lead from behind as they make him lead this way and that (let’s bomb Syria; oh, dear, let’s not). He wants to please everyone, but in the real world, only one faction can be satisfied at a time, leaving everyone else very unsatisfied.
It’s well and good to make nice with Congress -- have members over to watch the Super Bowl, take them to dinner and out for a round of golf. But when they won’t play along, you have to roll over them. Sure, they’re not going to like you, even members of your own party. Take the heat. Go up, or down, fighting.
The cost of preemptive compromise is high. Ask Larry Summers, who just withdrew his non-nomination to be chairman of the Federal Reserve. It’s not that the president accepted or rejected Summers; the problem is that he did neither. Obama’s way is to float a name, make some offhand noises of support when the attacks begin, and ditch the person when the whining starts to get loud.
Without a formal announcement that Summers was the nominee, the White House didn’t crank into action to shore him up, organize allies in Congress or push back against attacks in the press. The main foundation for Summers’s putative front-runner status was White House whispering about how the president really liked him. Well, he did. The other leading candidate, Fed Vice Chairman Janet Yellen, has visited the White House only once, and she wasn’t there to see the president. By contrast, Summers has been with Obama since the transition as a top economic adviser. The president likes to play tennis, debate policy and kid around with Summers (Obama gave him suspenders to hold up his ever-sagging pants at his 2010 going-away party from the White House).
The problem with floating trial balloons is that they lose altitude when opponents weigh in before supporters can prop them up. This can make the floater feel that their candidate has less backing than he does. There’s an industry of special-interest groups that exist -- and thrive -- solely by being against something. As the right and left nipped at Summers’s heels for being too soft on the banks or too enamored of government spending, all Obama did was tell a closed Senate meeting that lawmakers shouldn’t believe “everything they read in the Huffington Post.”
It was going to be an uphill slog for a president who doesn’t like conflict. The letter of support for Yellen signed by almost a third of the 54-member Senate Democratic caucus landed in the vacuum with a thud. With only a two-vote margin in the Senate Banking Committee and facing the opposition of Senator Elizabeth Warren, Obama figured he might not even get the Summers nomination onto the floor for a vote. Warren said Summers “wasn’t her first choice” (meaning he probably wasn’t even her 10th), and her pent-up frustration over how Wall Street had prevailed over Main Street gave her a stomach for the fight that Obama would have a hard time matching.
The Summers debacle had a dress rehearsal in Obama’s botched handling of the nonappointment of Susan Rice to be secretary of state. Like Summers, Rice is an Obama friend. She backed him for president over Hillary Clinton, for whom she once worked. Yet when it came time for the president to have her back, he did the same float and the same backing off. And it was the same kind of silence that ultimately led Rice to pull the plug on her own. It’s a lousy situation when you have to bear all the slings and arrows that come with being a nominee without ever being nominated.
The community organizer’s way was most damaging on Syria policy. The feeling of relief that we haven’t gotten ourselves into another Middle East quagmire is no consolation for the realization of just how badly the president dithered over what to do after his red line on chemical weapons was crossed. Does he authorize a military strike? Should he ask Congress for permission? Should any strike be “unbelievably small” and just to punish or a bit bigger than a “pinprick” and crush? Or should he turn over his manhood to Russian President Vladimir Putin?
Punting to Putin won out. For his remaining time in office, Obama might try the simple, old-fashioned way of governing: When you want someone in a job, nominate that person and fight for them, or don’t nominate them. Drop the bomb you say you’re going to drop; don’t just threaten. Obama’s slap-happy decision-making process always causes collateral damage. Summers didn’t survive it; neither did Rice. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, however, may turn out to be a winner. Could there be any better proof that trying to please everyone is no way to run the country?
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.)
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