Jay Winik, author of the magnificent “April 1865,” reminds us of the loneliness and unexpected difficulties that our greatest presidents have confronted. The skill to make enormously consequential decisions under pressure (and without the benefit of staff consensus) has often separated great presidents from mediocre ones. Ronald Reagan walked away at Reykjavik, to the horror of many advisors and the incredulity of elite opinion-makers. George W. Bush pushed for the surge despite its widespread condemnation in Congress and the media and great skepticism among his advisors. Harry Truman supported the state of Israel over George C. Marshall’s objections. History is filled with examples that leave us wondering “What if President X didn’t have the nerve?”
Now the question looms as to whether Barack Obama possesses the independence of mind and sage judgment to buck, when needed, conventional wisdom and the pleas of his advisors. We know he’s eloquent. We know he’s expert at avoiding conflict. And we know he’ll be surrounded by smart and experienced aides. None of that, however, answers the key question as to his own decision-making abilities.
His record is practically devoid of any clues as to whether he’ll be adept or inept at this key component of leadership. Yes, he ran an expert campaign which involved dozens of key decisions. But none approached the magnitude of those he’ll face in office. And we also know that throughout the campaign and transition he has been cautious to a fault, often declining to articulate a position (e.g. Gaza) or trying to delay as long as possible (e.g. the AIG bailout, Russia’s invasion of Georgia) offering an opinion on issues of great import. But that was then. What will happen when he is not critiquing, but deciding?
For the sake of the country we can hope that, like Harry Truman, he rises to the occasion once in office without the benefit of any prior executive training. And certainly we know executive experience didn’t do Jimmy Carter, for example, any good. We’ll have to see how it all works out — and pray for the best.