11.09.10

The Decider vs. The Agonizer

Presidents Bush and Obama both sat for interviews in the last few days. One was declarative. The other dithered. Howard Kurtz on how Obama is losing the left.

The president shook his head.

“Look, I’m not going to debate the issue,” he said. He had already decided.

Waterboarding was legal. Why? “Because the lawyers said it was legal,” George W. Bush told Matt Lauer.

But what if an American was taken captive in a foreign country? Bush cut Lauer off: “All I ask is that people read the book.” Case closed.

Twenty-five hours earlier, Bush’s successor was seen fielding this question: Had he lost his mojo?

“I think it’s—I think it’s a fair argument, you know, I—I think that over the course of two years, we were so busy and so focused on getting a bunch of stuff done that we stopped paying attention to the fact that, you know, leadership isn’t just legislation, that it’s a matter of persuading people,” Barack Obama told Steve Kroft.

The contrast could hardly have been sharper. Bush, with his short, declarative sentences, so sure of himself he felt no need to probe further on one of the most divisive ethical issues of his tenure. Obama, with his finely rendered prose, meandering around as he inspects the subject from various angles, almost like a think-tank analyst.

“At a moment when the president could have made a more energetic and affirmative attempt to seize control of the narrative, I thought he didn’t do that,” Eugene Robinson told me.

Eugene Robinson, a Washington Post columnist who has been an enthusiastic supporter of the 44th president and has been granted interviews and invites to group luncheons, wrote that Obama’s 60 Minutes appearance was “uninspired and uninspiring,” offering “no vision of a brighter tomorrow.”

“There is a performance aspect to the presidency, and I didn’t think it was a very good performance,” Robinson told me. “At a moment when the president could have made a more energetic and affirmative attempt to seize control of the narrative, I thought he didn’t do that.”

There is more to the presidency, of course, than handling television interviews. And an enormous caveat looms in comparing Obama on CBS with Bush on NBC: The former president didn’t have much on the line, other than some image rehab and a desire to boost book sales. The Lauer sitdown had a relaxed and reflective tone, as befits a subject who is no longer in the arena and has maintained a dignified silence for the last two years.

Still, it felt like we were watching The Decider vs. The Agonizer. The man who approved torture and the man who tortures himself.

The prime-time special brought back memories of a famously tongue-tied president, one who often seemed incurious about complex matters and would deliver cowboy slogans like “bring ’em on” and “dead or alive.”

Where Are Bush Officials Now?

Lauer asked about the 9/11 attacks—which, as we later learned, came a month after a presidential daily briefing titled “ Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.

“Did you ever ask yourself the question, what more could I have done to prevent this from happening?”

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President Obama on 60 Minutes.

“Well, we just didn’t have any solid intelligence,” Bush replied.

What about Saddam and his supposed weapons of mass destruction, the false premise on which the Iraq war was launched? “Did you personally have any doubt, any shred of doubt, about that intelligence?”

“No, I didn’t. I really didn’t,” Bush said. He felt no need to elaborate.

For better or worse, W. never seemed weighed down by the pressures of office. In 2002, after suicide bombings in Israel, Bush sternly warned: “We must do everything we possibly can to stop the terror. I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers.” Then he paused and said: “Now watch this drive,” and whacked a golf ball. (Bush did eventually give up golf because of the poor optics during wartime.)

Obama, on the other hand, seems acutely conscious of the heavy burdens he carries. He has not been a happy warrior. Kroft asked if he gets discouraged in the job.

“I do get discouraged. I mean, there are times when I thought that the economy would—have—have gotten better by now. You know, one of the things I think you understand as president is you’re held responsible for everything but you don’t always have control of everything, right, and especially in an economy this big.”

Now that is a candid answer, a perfectly reasonable point in a grownup conversation. But it does not exactly get the juices flowing. If the president of the United States is discouraged by 9.6 percent unemployment, how should the rest of us feel?

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George W. Bush talks to Matt Lauer.

I don’t necessarily agree with Robinson that presidents “aren’t allowed to be discouraged” or “talk about the limitations of the job.” Appearing to ignore deteriorating conditions—as Bush did during Katrina, one of the few decisions he told Lauer he botched—is quickly dismissed as happy talk. But it helps to fashion some kind of upbeat message.

Obama seemed equally diffident in his East Room news conference last week. The president can choose to be confrontational or conciliatory toward the Republicans after the shellacking, but he should have in mind what he wants the next day’s headline to say. Otherwise, why bother going on 60 Minutes?

With the GOP having seized the House, Obama is getting all kinds of bad press, like this piece in Politico about an “isolated” president: “Many Democrats privately say they are skeptical that Obama is self-aware enough to make the sort of dramatic changes they feel are needed—in his relations with other Democrats or in his very approach to the job…‘This guy swept to power on a wave of adulation, and he learned the wrong lessons from that,’ said a Democratic official who deals frequently with the White House.” 

It’s easy for disaffected Dems to take potshots, but also too easy for a close-knit White House—which keeps reminding itself that its winning campaign defied the experts—to ignore sound advice.

The presidency magnifies strengths and weaknesses, so it’s striking that Bush was at his most animated not about the wars or the financial collapse on his watch, but about Kanye West charging he didn’t care about black people. “One of the most disgusting moments in my presidency,” Bush declared.

In an interview with Sean Hannity airing tonight, Bush concedes that “sometimes I didn’t get my words right. And I never tell these audiences I speak to, you didn’t elect me cause I was Shakespeare.”

This is hardly much ado about nothing. Neither man should be judged by the standard of, say, Conan O’Brien’s basic cable debut, but we measure presidents by their words and demeanor. Obama is capable of great eloquence, but lately he has been, well, flat. It’s true he has spent much of the last two years cleaning up the messes Bush left behind, but the sell-by date on that argument has passed.

Obama eventually got around to telling Kroft that America is “incredibly resilient,” and perhaps he will prove to be as well. But lately he hasn’t looked the part.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program "Reliable Sources," Sundays at 11 am ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.