Obama Says He’s Not Worried About Style Points. He Should Be.

More focus on tone, timing and discipline might stop Obama from becoming Carter or Bush.

President Barack Obama walks along the West Wing Colonnade towards the Oval Office, Sept. 10, 2013.
National Journal
Jill Lawrence
Sept. 17, 2013, 2 a.m.

When Pres­id­ent Obama told ABC News he was “less con­cerned about style points” than “get­ting the policy right,” he was try­ing to hasten in­to ob­li­vi­on a for­eign-policy week from hell. But it’s a risky busi­ness to dis­reg­ard style.

From his Syr­ia gyr­a­tions to Monday’s ill-timed eco­nom­ic speech at­tack­ing Re­pub­lic­ans as a mass shoot­ing was in pro­gress at the nearby Wash­ing­ton Navy Yard, Obama’s ap­par­ently will­ful dis­missal of style could do more than just hurt his poll num­bers. It could yield midterm elec­tion losses and cre­ate per­haps in­sur­mount­able obstacles to achiev­ing his policy goals.

The Syr­ia moves were head-spin­ning, from be­gin­ning (Obama’s stun­ning de­cision to ask Con­gress to au­thor­ize a mil­it­ary strike) to end (Rus­sia con­ven­ing ne­go­ti­ations on Syr­ia’s chem­ic­al weapons). What with Con­gress poised to re­ject Obama’s re­quest and Vladi­mir Putin’s twin tours de force ““ com­ing up with a vi­able dip­lo­mat­ic path and land­ing an an­noy­ing op-ed in The New York Times ““ the com­mand­er in chief has ap­peared to be in a less than com­mand­ing po­s­i­tion.

Ron­ald Re­agan bio­graph­er Lou Can­non calls Obama’s per­form­ance on Syr­ia “ap­palling.” Pres­id­en­tial his­tor­i­an Robert Dallek says he’s com­ing across as “in­de­cis­ive, al­most Ham­let-like.” Among the de­scrip­tions tweeted by Richard Haass, pres­id­ent of the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, were un­steady, un­dis­cip­lined, poorly ex­ecuted, and “seri­al U.S. in­eptitude.”

Obama has a high-pro­file chance to step up and counter all that with strong, or­gan­ized, con­sist­ent lead­er­ship in the budget and debt battles of the next few weeks. But he seized that op­por­tun­ity pre­ma­turely ““ de­cid­ing to go ahead and give his speech on Monday, the five-year an­niversary of the fin­an­cial crisis, des­pite the shoot­ing in­cid­ent.

In pre­fat­ory re­marks, ac­know­ledging the un­fold­ing Navy Yard tragedy, Obama said: “We’re go­ing to be in­vest­ig­at­ing thor­oughly what happened, as we do so many of these shoot­ings, sadly, that have happened, and do everything that we can to try to pre­vent them.” Yet the in­cid­ent it­self was a re­mind­er that he has been un­able to win a single new gun re­stric­tion ““ not even an ex­pan­sion of gun-buy­er back­ground checks, sup­por­ted by 80 to 90 per­cent in polls — in the wake of last year’s hor­rif­ic school shoot­ing in New­town.

In some ways Obama’s fifth year is typ­ic­al of fifth years, when reelec­ted pres­id­ents aim high and of­ten fail. But in some ways it is atyp­ic­al, not­ably in the num­ber of fail­ures, set­backs, and in­com­pletes Obama has piled up. Gun con­trol and im­mig­ra­tion re­form are stalled. Two Obama fa­vor­ites with­drew their names as po­ten­tial nom­in­ees in the face of con­gres­sion­al op­pos­i­tion ““ Susan Rice, once a fron­trun­ner for sec­ret­ary of state, fol­lowed by Larry Sum­mers, a top can­did­ate to head the Fed­er­al Re­serve. Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry’s pos­sibly off­hand re­mark about As­sad giv­ing up his chem­ic­al weapons, and Putin’s jump in­to the arena with a dip­lo­mat­ic pro­pos­al, saved him from al­most cer­tain de­feat on Cap­it­ol Hill. Ed­ward Snowden set the na­tion­al se­cur­ity es­tab­lish­ment on its heels, then won tem­por­ary refuge from “¦ Putin. It’s far from clear how that will be re­solved.

And that’s as true for the budget and debt-lim­it show­downs ahead.

Some of Obama’s troubles are due to the in­transigence of House con­ser­vat­ives, and some may be in­ev­it­able in a world far less black and white than the one Re­agan faced. But the im­pres­sion of in­ef­fect­ive­ness is the same.

“People don’t like it when cir­cum­stances are dic­tat­ing the way in which a pres­id­ent be­haves. They want him to be the one in charge,” says Dallek, who has writ­ten books about nine pres­id­ents, in­clud­ing Re­agan and Frank­lin Roosevelt. “It’s un­fair”¦ On the oth­er hand, that’s what goes with the ter­rit­ory. People ex­pect pres­id­ents to be in com­mand, and they can’t al­ways be in com­mand, and the pub­lic is not for­giv­ing.”

Obama’s job ap­prov­al num­bers re­main in the mid-40s. The farther they fall be­low 50 per­cent, his­tory sug­gests, the worse he can ex­pect Demo­crats to do in the midterm House and Sen­ate elec­tions next year. Obama would likely be in worse trouble with the pub­lic, at least in the short term, if he had pushed for­ward with a mil­it­ary strike in Syr­ia. In fact, a new Pew Re­search Cen­ter poll shows 67 per­cent ap­prove of Obama’s switch to dip­lomacy. But his jour­ney to that point made him look weak and in­de­cis­ive.

In­deed, the year’s set­backs are ac­cu­mu­lat­ing and that is dan­ger­ous for Obama.

“At some point people make a col­lect­ive de­cision and they don’t listen to the pres­id­ent any­more. That’s what happened to both Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush,” Can­non says. “I don’t think Obama has quite gone off the diving board yet in the way that Carter or Bush did “¦ but he’s close to the edge. He needs to have some suc­cesses and per­cep­tions of suc­cess.”

That is go­ing to be dif­fi­cult, giv­en the near total lack of bi­par­tis­an­ship on Cap­it­ol Hill. In fact, Can­non’s de­scrip­tion of Re­agan’s suc­cesses ““ every time a bi­par­tis­an bill passed, his poll num­bers went up ““ is reas­on enough for Re­pub­lic­ans to keep block­ing Obama at every turn. Style points could be one way to stave off ir­rel­ev­ance. “Had we rolled out something that was very smooth and dis­cip­lined and lin­ear” on Syr­ia, Wash­ing­ton would have “graded it well, even if it was a dis­astrous policy,” Obama told ABC. But the two don’t have to be mu­tu­ally ex­clus­ive. A smooth, dis­cip­lined and lin­ear ap­proach to budget ne­go­ti­ations and the debt lim­it would be a step back from the edge of the Carter-Bush cliff, even if a clear win proves elu­sive.

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