How Obama Handles Crisis

The handwringers and bed wetters in the D.C. punditocracy should know that Barack Obama will never be on their timeline, says his longtime speechwriter Jon Favreau.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Honestly, they act like it’s his first crisis.

Sometime after the infamous Denver debate last fall, which by most media accounts should have forced the president to immediately quit the race and resign in shame, a few of us who had been with him since the earliest days tried to assess where the performance ranked on our list of All-Time Worst ObamaWorld Moments.

It was an exercise in gallows humor, but it lifted our spirits to recall how many times the president had been so mistakenly and definitively counted out over the last eight years. There was the New York Post headline from October 3, 2007, that always hung in Bill Burton’s campaign office: “CLINTON NEARLY READY FOR HER CORONATION.” And who could forget where they were when the news broke about the Reverend Wright or Bittergate scandals that Washington just knew would destroy Obama’s candidacy? In early September 2008, a Politico story even ran the following quote from a Democratic pollster I’ve still never heard of: “A failure to take Sarah Palin seriously will cost the Obama campaign.”

And all this was before we got to the White House.

At some point, the president heard about our little list, laughed, and began sharing his own nominations. They were very different. The meeting in the winter of 2008 where his new economic team told him just how deep the free fall would be. The moment after the Massachusetts special election when it appeared that health-care reform was dead. The debt-limit crisis in the summer of 2011. The oil spill. The first day he greeted military caskets at Dover Air Force Base. Fort Hood. Tucson.

By and large, the president’s most difficult moments—the true crises he’s confronted—haven’t been the political ones. At least not in his view. I was reminded of this by an anecdote in Peter Baker’s New York Times story from Thursday: “As he was traveling on Marine One on Monday, Mr. Obama took note of news reports describing last Friday as a terrible day. ‘You know what was actually a terrible day?’ an aide recalled him saying. ‘The day Benghazi actually happened.’”

A biracial, freshman senator named Barack Hussein Obama wouldn’t be president if he didn’t possess ample political talent. But to say that his decisions are driven primarily by politics is to fundamentally misunderstand the man who occupies the Oval Office. Bailing out the auto industry wasn’t even popular in Michigan at the time the president made the decision. No one would mistake health-care reform for a political winner. The president’s national-security team couldn’t give him more than a 50 percent probability that Osama bin Laden was in that compound, and a miss or worse could have ended his political career.

The keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention is what catapulted Barack Obama into the national spotlight, but the first speech that truly showed how he might lead as president came before that, in 2002. It was the speech announcing his opposition to a war in Iraq that most other Democrats with national political ambitions supported. Obama famously noted that he wasn’t opposed to all war, but rather “a dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.”

Many of the answers to recent questions about how the president makes decisions can be found in those words.

In the case of Benghazi, he was willing to accept the harsh judgments and sweeping recommendations of the independent Accountability Review Board because he holds himself responsible for the lives of the diplomats and intelligence officers he sends to dangerous places—something he said seven months ago. But he won’t stomach more of the same debate about Sunday-show talking points that, 100 emails later, amounts to little more than the same interagency turf battles that accompany every piece of writing released by the federal government. I know, I was a speechwriter there.

In the case of the AP phone records, Obama the former constitutional-law professor cares deeply about the balance between freedom and security. This is the president who began the foreign-policy section of his inaugural with the words “We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” And he wants Congress to debate and finally pass a media-shield law. But can you imagine if the president of the United States had quashed a court-ordered subpoena in an independent investigation he wasn’t even supposed to know about? A subpoena aimed at finding the person in his own administration who leaked classified information that may have jeopardized American lives? Talk about a political scandal.

And in the case of the IRS, the president must have been furious when he learned the news. I can remember how angry he was during the GSA debacle (parties in Vegas; think there were clowns and jugglers involved? Wow). He was angry because he knows that a progressive vision of government requires faith that government is efficient, and responsive, and trustworthy—and the handful of morons who break that trust sully the reputation of all the federal employees who uphold those values every day.

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But the president was not willing to fire a bunch of people before knowing all the relevant facts. He was not willing to go on a witch hunt before the investigation of the independent Inspector General was complete. That was more important to him than his short-term political standing in the eyes of the Washington press corps.

That is who he is. The handwringers and bed wetters in the D.C. punditocracy should know that Barack Obama will never be on their timeline. He does not value being first over being right. He will not spend his presidency chasing news cycles. He will not shake up his White House staff just because of some offhand advice offered to Politico by a longtime Washingtonian or a nameless Democrat who’s desperately trying to stay relevant. And if that means Dana Milbank thinks he’s too passive; if it means that Jim VandeHei will keep calling him arrogant and petulant; if it means that Chris Matthews will whine about him not enjoying the presidency, then so be it. He’ll live.

Barack Obama understands his own limitations and the limitations of his office. He has made mistakes and he will likely make more. But this is a president who has seen the nation through many serious and consequential crises, and he has done so without losing the core of who he is or why he ran for this job in the first place. In the end, those are the qualities that will serve him well—the qualities that will serve us well—in the months and years ahead.