President Obama's Jimmy Carter Problem

If the president wants to be more than a one-term wonder, he needs to have a vision. Leslie H. Gelb on the three things that matter most.

Don’t be fooled by the year-end reprieve of President Obama because the economy looks a bit brighter and the Senate passed a health bill. He’s been pummeled hard all along the political spectrum. He’s in trouble. If he doesn’t overhaul himself and his administration quickly, right-wing bizarros will control Congress in 2011 and he’ll be looking for another job in 2013. He’ll end up a one-termer like Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush. Obama can’t afford to wait to make a mid-course correction a year from now. He’s got to make a quarter-course correction in the next months. He needs to prioritize and focus his energies on the economy, teach his opponents to fear him, and change some top personnel. Above all, he’s got to modify his own ways. He puts far too much store on being the smartest guy in the room and not enough on experience. He’d do well to remember that Jimmy Carter also rang all the IQ bells.

Fair or not, the mess is all Obama’s now, and in these brutal and crucial times, he can’t be just a good president.

Mind you, I want Barack Obama to succeed. The simple truth, increasingly ignored by Americans and non-Americans alike, is that if he fails, we all fail: Corrosive nastiness and stalemates grow at home, and the world drowns without effective American leadership. I’m talking here about Obama’s success specifically because too many Democrats border on incompetent and Republicans excel mainly at destruction. Obama shouldn’t console himself by believing that as jobs slowly return, his reelection will be saved. His problems, our problems, run much deeper than jobs.

First and foremost, the president must have an overriding theme to discipline himself and focus Americans and the world. He’s been acting as if there are dozens of major issues, when there is only one—the economy, the economy, and the economy. Every other “major” issue has to be judged by how it affects the economy. Our economy is at the heart of our military and diplomatic power, and of our democracy, as Obama said at West Point—but he doesn’t say enough or nor do enough on a day-to-day basis.

When things go wrong at basic levels, there’s only one solution: Go back to basics. Basics means infrastructure—human and physical. We’re falling apart. We’re far behind most industrialized and industrializing societies in repairing and modernizing our roads, bridges, train tracks, airports, schools, and communication systems. Bringing these into the 21st century will create good jobs and economic growth far faster than anything else. That’s a fact. But our infrastructure won’t improve if decisions are left in the hands of thieving politicians in state legislatures, or if union workers just stand around so that jobs that used to take one year now take 10. The White House will have to fight to ensure the money gets to the people and the work gets done. That’s far more useful and necessary than Obama flying off on marginal journeys to Copenhagen and the Far East.

Even homeland security, which is in desperate need of repair, is about readying our infrastructure against future attacks. Security and infrastructure are inseparable. More and better intelligence to fight terrorism is also basic. It’s basic as well to veto defense spending that the Pentagon doesn’t want and most certainly doesn’t need. Same on the need to veto all those damned bridges to nowhere, the pork that candidate Obama promised to get rid of and that President Obama ignores. Americans will cheer political cleansing.

Elevating the economy to the sole priority doesn’t mean forsaking other major concerns. It means putting those concerns in economic perspective. Obama can fight global warming by funding new forms of energy, which also will reduce the production of offending carbons and stimulate the economy. To deal with health care, focus the final round of congressional bargaining on cost controls to get the deadly deficits under better control. Perhaps the main killer of our economy is that health costs will soon approach 20 percent of our economy.

As for the economy and international security, think about the fact that all U.S. military expenditures neared $750 billion this year—which is more than the total military spending of almost all other countries. We can’t maintain that, and it isn’t necessary for our national security. Looking down the road, we can do more to protect ourselves through cheaper policies of devastating air strikes and commando raids, containment with allies who share our interests, tried and true divide-and-conquer tactics against our enemies, and good old reliable deterrence, than by embroiling ourselves in endlessly draining civil wars and insurgencies. It will be less expensive and more effective to let our friends know from the outset that their security is primarily their responsibility, that we will help a lot if they’ll fight, but that most of the fighting must be up to them. Meantime, we can’t just walk away from Iraq and Afghanistan; the transitions there must be carefully executed.

To make this all work, Obama will have to be a lot tougher both at home and abroad. Until now, his critics have been able to beat up on him at no cost to themselves. Opponents will have to start fearing him; and friends will have to start accepting his discipline. If Republicans continue to scorn everything he does and refuse all reasonable compromise, he should pick out five of their prominent legislators and cut off their spending favorites. If Congress won’t do that, the White House can just refuse to spend the money. The offenders will soon get the message.

Obama also has to let world leaders know that they will have to pay a price for flouting America’s wishes. Yes, we hear all the time now that these leaders will turn to China, India, Brazil or what have you. They won’t, and even if they do, Chinese and Indian leaders won’t lift a finger to help them. Leadership demands sacrifices, and the leaders of these new world powers aren’t prepared to sacrifice anything.

Countries around the world say they want free trade, protection against global warming and genocide, security from external and internal threats. They’re well aware that the often hapless and helpless United Nations can’t do the job, as was so evident at Copenhagen. It was also pretty evident there that China was prepared for Copenhagen to fail if it interfered with Chinese profits—and to blame that failure on the rich countries. And let our good Arab friends think about their security without America’s protective umbrella. Team Obama has to push back and let others know that our help depends on their support. No more free rides.

Getting policy priorities established and White House power in gear requires that Obama fix up both himself and his team. He can’t keep pronouncing and speechifying on everything. Every time he does, he’s got to say something new, otherwise nothing gets reported. So, he says something new, and it’s different from what he said last time, everyone gets confused about his goals and policies. He also has to impose message discipline. One top economic counselor, Larry Summers, said that the economy and jobs are rebounding. Another top economic counselor, Christina Romer, said that they aren’t. His Vice President Joe Biden says that U.S. troops will start leaving Afghanistan on July 2011, and his senior military advisers say that it “depends.” Jimmy Carter drowned his power in such inconsistencies.

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Obama must have White House staff and senior Cabinet officers who will share his policy focus and accept discipline. Above all, that requires that he be clear and consistent in his own mind about what he’s doing. One Obama word out of place and his advisers will simply run off in their own different directions. The president needs managers and strategists, experienced hands in getting things done.

Obviously, Obama inherited an almost unprecedented mess, and obviously he has done some good things. But fair or not, the mess is all his now, and in these brutal and crucial times, he can’t be just a good president. He’s got to be an exceptional president with an iron focus on the economy, an iron-fisted hand to keep most marching in that right direction, and he must become the leader of a team that knows what buttons to push and how to succeed.

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.