Obama's Power Outage

One Senate upset, and the president seems ready to deal away health care. Leslie H. Gelb on how he needs to stop prattling on about institutions, grab the reins, and lead.

If you want to grasp instantly why President Obama faces the abyss, look no further than his bizarre commentary a day after Tuesday’s Massachusetts senatorial election.

First, study his explanation of what went wrong in his first year in office. "If there's one thing that I regret this year,” he opined, “[it] is that we were so busy just getting stuff done and dealing with the immediate crises that were in front of us, that I think we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are and why we have to make sure those institutions are matching up with those values. And that I do think is a mistake of mine." President Warren G. Harding could not have said it better. Neither could Obama’s Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, generally regarded as the most inarticulate White House spokesman ever (with the exception of George W. Bush’s Dana Perino).

Obama has to make a fundamental personal and strategic choice: Either continue to do a little of this and little of that and call it pragmatism, or take on the fight to make the nation face up to its economic crisis.

I thought the president already was dealing with our core values and priorities. He was spending most of his time on bailing out the banks (without restricting compensation for bank executives and without incentives to lend the bailout money to ordinary citizens); the war in Afghanistan (without any clear plan for how to end it); and health-care reform and cost-cutting (without actually reforming or cost-cutting). If those weren’t real “immediate crises” or top priorities, I’m a spoilsport. Obama’s chief priority, of course, was the economy and job creation, and no one knows the outcome on that front yet. As for how he would now remedy the unfortunate situation he describes (“matching up” our core values with our institutions), my guess is that only a few dozen professors will have the foggiest idea what he is talking about. And not even they will grab the American flag and man the barricades to fight for “matching.”

Second, he instantly sold out almost a year’s worth of effort—his own, and that of his fellow Democrats—spent on passing health-care reform. Here’s what he said: “[I]t is very important to look at the substance of this package ... I would advise that we try to move quickly to coalesce around those elements of the package that people agree on. We know that we need insurance reform, that the health-insurance companies are taking advantage of people. We know that we have to have some form of cost-containment because if we don't, then our budgets are going to blow up and we know that small businesses are going to need help so that they can provide health insurance to their families. Those are the core, some of the core elements of, to this bill.” (Typically, Mr. Obama reacts to cataclysms with major new decisions within hours, only to redefine or recolor them within days.)

Roger Martin: Obama’s Real Wall Street SchemeUnless I’m misreading where Mr. Obama is going or unless he changes his explanation of “core,” this statement feels like virtual capitulation to Republicans—without even waiting a few days to establish a bargaining position. Why on earth give the “core” away before even starting the bargaining? Truth be told, I’d prefer a tight bill that zooms in on portability of coverage, opens up insurance companies nationwide to competition, offers insurance protection for preexisting conditions, establishes store-front clinics as neighborhood “hospitals,” provides catastrophic insurance, puts forth medical information programs to cut costs, and takes a few other practical small steps. But it offends my sensibilities to watch the president throw in the towel before the give-and-take even begins anew. And it certainly has offended his fellow Democrats.

These remarks show, once again, that the Obama team does not excel at managing policy or the power of the White House. The clarion call of “matching” values with institutions will not do. The only overriding goal that will provide both focus and power to the White House is to strengthen the economy and create good jobs. And the only way to leverage that objective with the American people and Congress is to forcefully make the case that the United States is in an economic crisis. And we are, in the most profound sense. The actual jobless rate is not 10 percent. If you include those who have abandoned the search for jobs, the figure stands closer to about 17 percent. In net numbers of jobless, that’s more than during the Great Depression. Our public-school system ranks lowest among industrial democracies. Our infrastructure ranks about the same. Far more home-mortgage foreclosures and personal bankruptcies are expected in the next two years. This is a crisis. And if Mr. Obama can convince Americans of this reality, he’ll be better positioned to push through tough and necessary regulatory measures to corral runaway greed and conflicts of interest on Wall Street, as well as new funds and tough procedures to rebuild human, technological, and physical infrastructure. The president must convince the public that the crisis is real. Only then can he draw the necessary power to fix it.

He can also make the point he made at the end of his West Point speech on Afghanistan: that the American economy is the basis of American democracy, of American economic competitiveness, and of American military and diplomatic power in the world. Washington has lost more power in the world in the last three years than at any time since the end of World War II. That’s because leaders around the world take a major power less seriously when it is in economic decline. Most other nations are already discounting the ability of the United States to sustain its global responsibilities. So, they heed us less.

The economic crisis also should drive American leaders to reevaluate how big and how long the nation’s military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan should run. Counting all kinds of costs, the direct drain of these wars still exceeds $200 billion and will continue to rise. America’s economic crisis is not an argument for isolationism; it is an argument for using our power in more creative ways, as our leaders did during the Cold War. Containment with allies, coupled with deterrence and continued military and economic support to those truly willing to fight terrorism, is a far less expensive and more effective national-security policy than we now have.

Obama has to make a fundamental personal and strategic choice: Either continue to do a little of this and little of that and call it pragmatism, or take on the fight to make the nation face up to its economic crisis, make the tough political decisions to get the job done—and make the necessary adjustments in his foreign policy to free up the funds and the time for determined and steady leadership. It takes time, relentlessness, toughness, and a lot of political skill to prevent America from sinking. Mr. Obama’s confusing rhetoric about matching and weak bargaining sense on health care suggest that he has yet to grasp the point: Great presidents don’t run away from crises; they use them to pound home necessary fixes in American government and society.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.