Leaderless

I once asked, “What if Obama can’t lead?” The answer after Paris is painful.

President Barack Obama pauses during a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Nov. 23, 2015, 8:42 a.m.

In his mem­oir, Le­on Pan­etta ar­gued that for all of Barack Obama’s strengths, he is miss­ing an es­sen­tial in­gredi­ent of lead­er­ship. He lacks “fire,” wrote Obama’s former CIA dir­ect­or and Pentagon chief. “The pres­id­ent re­lies on the lo­gic of a law pro­fess­or rather than the pas­sion of a lead­er.”

Obama has proved Pan­etta right again and again dur­ing his pres­id­ency, but nev­er more dan­ger­ously so than with his shoulder-shrug ap­proach to IS­IS. Obama called it a “J.V. team” be­fore it star­ted be­head­ing Amer­ic­ans. He said it was “con­tained” be­fore it at­tacked Par­is. Now he’s call­ing it “a bunch of killers with good so­cial me­dia.

That’s how you de­scribe a street gang—a bunch of killers with good so­cial me­dia. The Is­lam­ic State is no street gang.

Ob­ject­ive ob­serv­ers from across the polit­ic­al spec­trum took ex­cep­tion to Obama’s tone. This from Frank Bruni, a lib­er­al-minded New York Times colum­nist:

He was at his worst just after the Par­is at­tacks, when he com­mu­nic­ated as much ir­rit­a­tion with the second-guess­ing of his stew­ard­ship as he did out­rage over Par­is and de­term­in­a­tion to des­troy the Is­lam­ic State, or IS­IS.

He owed us something dif­fer­ent, something more. He’d just said, the day be­fore Par­is, that IS­IS was con­tained and that it was weak­en­ing, so there was an onus on him to make abund­antly clear that he grasped the mag­nitude of the threat and was in­tensely fo­cused on it.

From Obama we needed fire. In­stead we got em­bers, along with the un-pres­id­en­tial por­tray­al of Re­pub­lic­ans as sniv­el­ing wimps whose fears about refugees were akin to their com­plaints about tough de­bate ques­tions.

There it is again—“from Obama we needed fire.”

The man who so aptly dia­gnosed Obama’s ton­al weak­ness, Le­on Pan­etta, ap­peared on Meet the Press on Sunday to de­mand more lead­er­ship against IS­IS. This time, he stuck to sub­stance—and was no less dev­ast­at­ing.

“I think the U.S. has to lead in this ef­fort be­cause what we’ve learned a long time ago is that if the United States does not lead, nobody else will,” Pan­etta said. He blamed Obama for un­der-serving his prom­ise to dis­rupt and de­feat IS­IS. “I think that the re­sources ap­plied to that mis­sion, frankly, have not been suf­fi­cient to con­front that.”

Pan­etta is not alone among Demo­crats wor­ried about Obama’s ap­proach. Lead­ing Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­or Di­anne Fein­stein told Face the Na­tion that the United States is not do­ing enough to fight the Is­lam­ic State.

“We need to be ag­gress­ive,” she said. “Now.”

Per­son­ally, I’m no hawk. I’m not con­vinced the United States needs more ground troops in the Middle East, cer­tainly not without a rad­ic­al re­think­ing of how the war against IS­IS would re­quire shared sac­ri­fice. I am sym­path­et­ic to the fact that Obama faces no easy op­tions after in­her­it­ing Pres­id­ent Bush’s ill-con­ceived war in Ir­aq. And I’ve got ab­so­lutely no pa­tience for the GOP pres­id­en­tial field’s hy­per­bol­ic, dis­hon­est, and big­oted rhet­or­ic.

But there is only one com­mand­er-in-chief, and ours is stub­bornly cling­ing to a strategy against IS­IS that lacks clar­ity, cre­ativ­ity, and ur­gency. There is only one pres­id­ent, and ours doesn’t seem to know how to rally us to a com­mon cause.

Look at this Twit­ter feed from Ron Klain, a lead­ing Demo­crat­ic con­sult­ant who served as Obama’s Ebola czar. He re­calls the ir­ra­tion­al, polit­ic­ally charged calls to close U.S. bor­ders to people from na­tions stricken by the dis­ease—a pan­ic not un­like the one over Syr­i­an refugees today. “Ebola ex­per­i­ence of­fers three les­sons for man­aging fears,” Klain writes.

1. Ac­know­ledge and ad­dress the pub­lic’s fear. Don’t dis­miss it as il­le­git­im­ate. “That only ex­acer­bates fears and fuels doubts about lead­ers’ candor.”

2. Ex­plain the dangers of “giv­ing in­to fears.” In­ac­tion is ris­ki­er than ac­tion.

3. “Show that gov­ern­ment has a plan to man­age the risk—not ig­nor­ing the risk, but tak­ing act­ive, ser­i­ous steps to re­duce it.”

Klain didn’t say this but I will: On IS­IS, Obama breaks every rule. He min­im­izes the threat and dis­misses our fears, which raises doubts about his candor and cap­ab­il­ity. An over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans dis­ap­prove of his hand­ling of IS­IS, a new poll shows, and 81 per­cent think IS­IS will strike the United States.

In Ju­ly 2013, six months in­to his second term, I wrote a column that ques­tioned wheth­er Obama would ful­fill his enorm­ous po­ten­tial, wheth­er he even cared any­more about his prom­ises to change Wash­ing­ton, wheth­er he could write the mod­ern rules of the pres­id­ency and build a new bully pul­pit. I asked, “What if Obama can’t lead?”

I now have my an­swer.

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