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Can He Learn?

Obama’s Olympics bid rebuff is a self-inflected wound, which may either come to personify a White House tripped up by its own arrogance and incompetency or serve as a wake-up call that narcissism is not the basis for a successful presidency.

For now, the media, even usually sympathetic cheerleaders, are having a field day. Several story lines are swirling. He shouldn’t have gone if this wasn’t in the bag. Or he shouldn’t have gone at all while unemployment is skyrocketing and Afghanistan policy is adrift. Or his staff failed him. Maybe “all of the above.”

The question now is whether the president can learn from his mega-gaffe. To date, he hasn’t shown that he can learn from his mistakes. He delegated drafting his stimulus bill to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid—and wound up with an embarrassing and ineffective grab bag of liberal junk programs. Did he learn from that? No. Cap-and-trade and health-care reform weren’t treated any differently. And sure enough, both of those agenda items are stalled in the congressional swamp.

On health-care reform, the August recess afforded time for self-reflection or readjustment after ObamaCare stalled. It wasn’t put to good use, however. The president came back in September to where he left off—hitting the airwaves, making vapid speeches, and refusing to spell out a detailed plan of his own. He learned nothing and ObamaCare continues to unwind.

What is the lesson to be learned from the Olympics? The Wall Street Journal editors offer this:

If Mr. Obama and the White House made a mistake, it was in their apparently boundless faith that somehow Mr. Obama’s personal popularity would carry the day. As if, merely by seeing the rock star in person, the delegate from, say, Egypt would abandon his simmering dislike for America, forget all the dinners and deals cut with the Rio Committee, and reward Chicago. In that sense, the Olympic defeat is a relatively painless reminder that interests trump charm or likability in world affairs. Better to relearn this lesson in a fight over a sporting event than over nuclear missiles.

We’ll see in the weeks ahead whether the IOU’s slap across the face shocks Obama into some recognition of the limits of his own persona and a proper appreciation for how a president should use his time. It is perhaps finally time to put away the celebrity routine and focus on governance at home and in international affairs.

Rather than lecturing us on racial profiling, boring us with another marathon run of TV appearances, or spinning Utopian tales for the UN, he might get down to the nitty-gritty of working on the four critical issues before him: addressing the worsening job situation, devising a minimal health-care package (that doesn’t make the job situation worse and that garners some bipartisan support), implementing promptly a winning strategy in Afghanistan, and coming up with a credible approach (endless talk doesn’t cut it) to halting Iran’s nuclear program.

This is not the stuff of mass rallies or TV appearances. Obama must step into the role of president. For probably the first time in his political career, Obama cannot get by on charm. These issues are not going to be solved because he’s a “historic” president or because of anything George W. Bush can be blamed for. All that might have been the key to getting elected, but it’s not the solution to what ails him now. What he needs is to discard incompetent staff and unworkable plans, govern from the center of the political spectrum, restore his image as a resolute commander in chief, and lead rather than follow. If the Olympic-bid fiasco can set him on the course to do all that, it will prove worth the temporary hit. And if not, it will mark the moment when the wheels finally came off the Obama presidency.


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