“But part of this job is also the theater of it. A part of it is, you know, how are you, how, how are you, well, it's not something that—that always comes naturally to me.” —President Barack Obama on Meet The Press, Sunday
Some presidents might have garnered a bit of sympathy and understanding with claims that the “theater” of the office doesn’t come naturally to them. Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson, maybe even Richard Nixon, who was so much the anti-natural he hired PR professionals to run his White House. But Barack Obama?
This is the Obama who as a candidate spoke before 200,000 at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate? Der Spiegel headlined that speech with: “People of the World, Look at Me.” The same candidate who gave his acceptance speech outdoors in Denver surrounded by columns, mocked for their resemblance to ancient Greek temples, which is, ironically enough, where the Greeks performed the new art form of dramatic theater they were creating.
Why is this pretense necessary? Obama wrote two autobiographies by the age of 40 and is well aware of the role that his mastery of political theater has played in his rapid ascension to the White House. As Valerie Jarrett said of Senate candidate Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention: “It changed his life.”
The “I’m not good at theater” is a calculated, if awkward, attempt to dismiss criticism as superficial and worthy of, well, theater critics, not serious thinkers. It’s fundamentally condescending, but like a lot of ill-considered defenses, it only reinforces the heart of the criticism. The charge is being disconnected and out of touch, and to dismiss it with a retort that even supporters will find inadequate seems….disconnected and out of touch.
Democratic supporters of the president are worried about both the perception and reality of the president’s leadership. “Too passive,” says Senator Diane Feinstein. In the Meet The Press interview he again disputed that he was talking specifically about ISIS when he now famously said in a January 2014 New Yorker interview, “I think the analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” As Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler points out, that denial simply isn’t credible as “the context of Remnick’s question makes it clear that he was asking about ISIS.”
It is rarely a good thing when the country seems more worried than the president. Or when the country is worried about the president’s level of concern. But when confronted with vexing issues that defy easy solutions, more and more, the president seems to check out rather than dig in.
The “passive” comments of Senator Feinstein reflect not just a specific response to ISIS but a larger worldview. Increasingly the president seems to view the world as this dangerous place where things just keep happening but where the United States and our allies have little impact.
In one of the more revealing moments in the MTP interview, the president summed up the situation with ISIS and Syria: “You know, the reason we're in this situation is because Assad brutalized his people and specifically brutalized the Sunni population that is the majority in Syria.”
Well, no. First there’s the fact that previously, the president had assured the world that Bashar al-Assad would soon no longer be in power. In his 2012 State of the Union address, he declared: ”A year ago, Qaddafi was one of the world’s longest-serving dictators—a murderer with American blood on his hands. Today, he is gone. And in Syria, I have no doubt that the Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change cannot be reversed, and that human dignity cannot be denied.”
Qaddafi would likely not have fallen without external forces aided by the United States (the example cited as a success of “leading from behind”), and Assad’s ability to remain in power has largely been contingent on the United States and others not taking a more active role. If the president believes ISIS has been spawned by Assad brutalizing his people, that would surely be one more reason we should have intervened earlier. Maybe staying out of Syria was the right decision, maybe it was the wrong decision, but let’s don’t pretend that it wasn’t a decision—a decision made by our commander in chief.
But does ISIS exist as a consequence of Assad’s failures, or is it the latest continuation of a militant Islamic fundamentalism? As Shiraz Maher of the International Centre for the study of Radicalisation wrote in The New Statesman, “This is precisely what Bin Laden always envisioned. His main thesis on the failure of the Islamist project was that western interference in the Middle East prevented the rise of Islamic governments. Weaken the west’s sphere of influence, he argued, and a caliphate would emerge.”
This is the antithesis of President Obama’s view. As outlined in his June 2009 Cairo speech, the president clearly believes that Western influence in the Muslim world is a contributing factor to radicalism, not a mitigating force. “Tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims,” the president declared in Cairo, “and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations.”
That’s certainly true in a historical sense, but the president seems unwilling to acknowledge other realities as well: that withdrawal of Western influence is rarely followed by the triumph of “the common principles—principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings”—that he described in Cairo. It’s as if he assumes that the life experience he describes—“I have known Islam on three continents”—will lead others to a like conclusion.
Our American tendency to see the world as populated by like-minded souls is never productive. It surely was a contributing factor in some of our greatest foreign policy miscalculations, from Vietnam to Iraq.
Americans are tired of war and would like much of the world to simply go away. But when we go away, the world has a way of demanding our attention. The task for a president—never easy—is to shape events to America’s advantage rather than allowing events to shape us. ISIS—like Vladimir Putin—seems to know what it wants and how to get it. The question is, do we?
When the president says we don’t have a strategy to fight ISIS, it’s not theater but reality. When Russia invades another country and our response is predicated on denying it’s an invasion, that’s reality, not theater.
President Obama has 864 days left in office, just a couple hundred less than JFK served. The president came to office with great energy and ambition. Chuck Todd asked him if he was “exhausted.” It’s time to prove he’s not.