A President Must Have a Strategy (Even When He Doesn’t)

September 5th, 2014

Whoever is running White House communications these days seriously needs to look for other work because the entire operation is falling apart and at a very bad time.

Last week’s comment by the president that “we don’t have a strategy yet” when dealing with the growing terrorist state in Iraq and Syria is drawing criticism from both Republicans and Democrats.  This week, the president appeared to attempt to correct his mistake by sounding tough and threatening to “destroy” the terrorist organization only to later indicate he intends to make it a “manageable threat.”

This latter pledge begs the question, “What exactly is a ‘manageable threat?’”  Does it mean that if we keep the number of Americans brutally murdered at the hands of terrorists at a certain level that it’s all good? Obviously, that “strategy” works best if you don’t happen to be one of the Americans sacrificed in accordance with this policy.

In The Times of London this week, a joint editorial penned by the president and British Prime Minister David Cameron appeared calling for action.  While I think this joint effort comports with Obama’s overall strategy of making clear that the United States isn’t acting alone and isn’t trying to rule the world, it also gives the impression that we’re so weak and lacking leadership or direction that we only act if someone stronger and more deliberate holds our hand.  Through this entire crisis, David Cameron has looked every part the strong leader.  Our own president . .  .not so much.

Clearly, this is a problem.  As I’ve often noted, while Barack Obama likes to present himself as brilliant and professorial, when it comes to being a student of history, he completely fails.  In fact, at times it’s almost embarrassing. He’s said things that make the average high school junior look more knowledgeable than him about history and the traits of a good leader. That’s unsettling. You’d hope that the person actually holding the office would have at least checked out the job requirements before applying for it.

Most high school juniors could also probably tell you that when it comes to feckless presidential leadership, we’ve been down this road before and it wasn’t good.

For instance, prior to the Civil War, the nation experienced several presidents who themselves clearly had no strategy whatsoever when it came to dealing with the difficult problem of slavery.

From Millard Fillmore who assumed the presidency following the death of Zachary Taylor to Franklin Pierce who was depressed and likely an alcoholic after his young son’s sudden death followed by James Buchanan, the nation was clearly leaderless and thus the Civil War that followed couldn’t have really taken anyone by surprise.  Buchanan’s inaugural address, in which he claimed slavery was of “little practical importance” likely sent shudders up the spines of thoughtful citizens who clearly could tell that he either didn’t know what he was doing or didn’t want to do what he knew he should do.  Either way, it was a recipe for disaster.

We all know Barack Obama abhors any show of American military or economic strength.  It runs counter to his fundamental belief that we should all be equal citizens of the world.  So it’s no wonder that he seems so reluctant to appear decisive in this current crisis.

Still, as citizens, we can only hope that behind the scenes he really does have a strategy and that it’s strong and decisive. Do I think he does?  I doubt it, but we can at least “hope”—after all that’s one of the two words he campaigned on. Unfortunately, right now, his administration appears more eager to aggressively pursue the Ferguson police department than the terrorists in Syria and Iraq.

Finally, Obama needs to learn the important lesson that as long as he’s president he is the steward of the “bully pulpit” Theodore Roosevelt described.  All his words will be scrutinized and mean something.  Given that, he should always speak as if he has a decisive plan even when he doesn’t have a clue.


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