A President Blinded by Righteousness

The Ukraine crisis illustrates why being “right” isn’t always enough.

US President Barack Obama speaks during the Winning the Future Forum on Small Business in Cleveland, Ohio, February 22, 2011. AFP PHOTO/Jim WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
Ron Fournier
March 10, 2014, 6:29 a.m.

Days be­fore Vladi­mir Putin’s troops in­vaded Ukraine, Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­viser Susan Rice dis­missed sug­ges­tions that Rus­sia was about to pounce. “It’s in nobody’s in­terest,” she said. Days later, Pres­id­ent Obama de­clared the in­va­sion to be il­leg­al. “In 2014,” he said, “we are well bey­ond the days when bor­ders can be drawn over the heads of demo­crat­ic lead­ers.”

Two things strike me about those quotes. First, they were right. From the view­point of the United States and its al­lies, in­vad­ing Crimea made no sense, leg­ally or stra­tegic­ally. Second, it didn’t mat­ter: Putin plays by his own set of rules, and it’s dan­ger­ously na­ive not to real­ize that.

Ukraine is il­lus­trat­ive of a flaw in Obama’s world­view that con­sist­ently un­der­mines his agenda, both for­eign and do­mest­ic. He thinks be­ing right is good enough. From fights with Con­gress over the fed­er­al budget and his nom­in­a­tions, to gun con­trol, im­mig­ra­tion re­form, health care, and Syr­ia, the pres­id­ent dis­plays tun­nel-vis­ion con­vic­tion, an al­most blind­ing right­eous­ness. I’m right. They’re wrong. Why isn’t that enough?

With such cer­ti­tude, Obama finds it hard to see why any­body would op­pose him, which makes it al­most im­possible to earn new al­lies. He’s also slow to real­ize when some fault lies with him. The res­ult is Obama’s leg­acy of “Right, but “¦” mo­ments.

Amer­ic­ans don’t fa­vor mil­it­ary ac­tion in Syr­ia and can’t stom­ach gen­o­cide. That may be right, but waver­ing on a “red line” and dither­ing on a de­cision pro­jec­ted weak­ness. Months later, Syr­ia is flout­ing chem­ic­al-weapons dead­lines im­posed in the deal that Obama cut via Rus­sia.

Pun­ish­ing a law­yer for the crimes com­mit­ted by a cli­ent de­fies sac­red con­sti­tu­tion­al prin­ciples. That may be right, but per­haps there was an­oth­er qual­i­fied can­did­ate to be the na­tion’s top civil-rights en­for­cer be­side Debo Ad­e­g­bile, who years ago rep­res­en­ted a cop killer. If Ad­e­g­bile was the most qual­i­fied can­did­ate, the White House didn’t work hard enough and long enough to stiffen the spine of Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors. In­sist­ing on a Sen­ate vote and then los­ing sets a pre­ced­ent that de­fense law­yers can be dis­qual­i­fied for their cli­ent’s ac­tions. Obama was right on the mer­its, wrong on the rest.

Most Amer­ic­ans sup­port back­ground checks on guns. Polls show that Obama was right, es­pe­cially in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the New­town shoot­ings, but he un­der­es­tim­ated the strength of the gun lobby and couldn’t build a co­ali­tion in Con­gress. Obama him­self is frus­trated with the in­ab­il­ity to trans­late in­to le­gis­lat­ive suc­cesses his cam­paign’s bril­liance at mo­bil­iz­ing people to vote. If he had man­aged to make that leap, gun con­trol might have been the ini­tial be­ne­fi­ciary.

Most Amer­ic­ans sup­port uni­ver­sal health care and want gov­ern­ment to help solve big prob­lems like that. He may be right, but Obama’s ef­forts to fold some Re­pub­lic­ans in­to the health re­form pro­cess were half­hearted, and he hap­pily signed a par­tis­an bill. He’s right that Re­pub­lic­ans are stub­bornly in­ves­ted in the law’s fail­ure, but its rocky im­ple­ment­a­tion is his fault, not theirs.

Most Amer­ic­ans want a “Grand Bar­gain” on the budget that both raises rev­en­ue and re­strains en­ti­tle­ments. He’s right about that and de­serves cred­it for of­fer­ing mod­est en­ti­tle­ment re­form, but Obama has blown at least two chances to seize a big deal with the GOP — im­me­di­ately after his reelec­tion, when he grabbed tax in­creases out­side a broad­er bar­gain, and in the spring of 2013, when the GOP signaled its will­ing­ness to raise rev­en­ue un­der the guise of tax re­form.

Im­mig­ra­tion re­form is a mor­al, polit­ic­al, and eco­nom­ic im­per­at­ive. He’s right about that, and the GOP is wrong (if not sui­cid­al) to ig­nore the prob­lem, but Obama will be judged harshly if he leaves of­fice without the sig­ni­fic­ant changes he prom­ised to the His­pan­ic com­munity.

His­tor­i­ans score pres­id­ents based on what they ac­com­plish with the al­lies, the en­emies, and the cir­cum­stances dealt to them. This will not be known as the Era of Re­pub­lic­an Ob­struc­tion. We are not at the dawn of the Rus­si­an Cen­tury. Right or wrong, it’s on Obama — and that should be enough.

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