Obama the Incrementalist

November 1st, 2009

By Tom Carter

obama_increment Obama the incrementalist is the headline of a column written by Howard Kurtz in The Washington Post a few days ago.

Kurtz emphasized what I wrote in a previous article, The Faux Golden Boy.  If I can be forgiven for quoting myself, I said that Obama is “the kind of modern man…who is mostly image without accomplishment….  He ducks and weaves his way around obstacles, never confronting challenges head-on, never engaging in direct combat that can wound or kill.” This is essentially the picture of Obama that Kurtz paints, along with a devastating critique of the liberal media and their adoring attitude toward him.  Kurtz wrote,

One year ago, the hopes were sky-high for Barack Obama. Today, expectations have been tempered by reality. His cheerleaders feel let down, and are searching for explanations. Anyone who’s spent two weeks in Washington would know that Obama’s yes-we-can idealism would run smack into the capital’s no-we-won’t culture. But the media built Barack into a transcendent figure, one who would overcome the usual obstacles with his post-partisan appeal. Remember when the newsmagazines couldn’t decide whether he was more like FDR or Lincoln? …

Kurtz quotes Anna Quindlen giving a liberal’s view of the revealed Obama, still somewhat in awe but beginning to recognize that the golden boy is not so golden after all:

Noting that Obama hasn’t even repealed don’t ask/don’t tell, which he can do unilaterally, Quindlen says: “One reason may be the president’s essential character, which is at odds with the persona that developed during the campaign. Perhaps because of his race and his age, much of the electorate, especially those of us who are liberals, succumbed to stereotype and assumed that he was by way of being a firebrand. A year in, and we know that we deceived ourselves. He is methodical, thoughtful, cerebral, a believer in consensus and process. In an incremental system, Barack Obama is an incremental man. It is one reason he is taking his time ending the two wars in which we remain mired, Nobel Peace Prize notwithstanding. “On the one hand, on the other. This makes attacks on him as a radical or a socialist preposterous, not to mention ridiculously retro. (Can ‘Trotskyite’ be far behind?) It has also dispirited progressives, whose heraldic emblem might well be the broad stroke. The president is a person of nuance. But on both ends of the political number line, nuance is seen as wishy-washy.”

What we’re seeing as Obama struggles with a decision on strategy in Afghanistan is the incrementalist, wishy-washy faux golden boy trying to deal with one of those hard problems that can’t be decided in a way that everyone will hail as brilliant.  If he had any executive leadership experience at all, he would understand that this is what his job is about.  In the case of the presidency, it’s 90 percent “hail to the chief” and 10 percent gut-wrenching decisions, the kind of thing a former CEO, state governor, military commander, or even vice president would understand.

Obama’s performance in office so far should be a lesson to all those on the far right who raise the alarm that Obama is a crusading socialist (or communist or whatever) intent on destroying the country.  The truth may be worse — he’s a brilliant, charismatic man who’s a thinker and genuine intellectual and who might have been a very successful academic.  But like most intellectuals and academics, he’s never before had to face the gut-wrenching decisions that senior executives have to make, often as a consequence of their own policies and strategies.

The decision Obama is making right now on Afghanistan is likely to be the best or the worst of his presidency, and he knows it.  No amount of ducking, weaving, and eloquent speechifying will help.  Let’s hope he’s up to the challenge.

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2 Responses to “Obama the Incrementalist”

  1. larry |

    With this Presidents lack of the ability to be decisive in Afghanistan can failure and catastrophebe far behind??

  2. Tom |

    Larry, that could be true, although I think the term “catastrophe” is too strong. As we’ve seen, the system of checks and balances has worked against Obama’s initiatives, and it will mitigate the damage he could do.

    The problem with the Afghanistan decision is that the only two appropriate responses, to put it briefly, are all-in or all-out. Either of those decisions is going to alienate a lot of people. If Obama continues being Obama, he’ll try to find a middle path that will keep everyone happy with him. That’s where the potential for disaster lies — sending too few troops and resources to accomplish the mission, while putting unrealistic operational limits on what they can do.

    The all-in option cost Lyndon Johnson his presidency and his legacy, and the country still suffers from that decision.

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