Commentary Magazine


Topic: competent president

Leslie Gelb: We Need Better Advisers Because Obama Is Failing

Leslie Gelb has plainly had it with Obama. He observes: “The negative, even dismissive, talk about the Obama White House has reached a critical point. The president must change key personnel now. Unless he speedily sets up a new team, he will be reduced to a speechmaker.” We can quibble with the tense of that sentence, but he has a point.

Indeed, Gelb provides a list of particulars. On Afghanistan:

It’s even hard to follow his latest Afghan policy. He calls Afghanistan a “war of necessity” and orders more than 30,000 new troops there, coupled with an announcement that he’ll begin withdrawing some of them in a year plus, only to see some of his advisers say he will start withdrawals and some say he won’t.

On the Middle East, Gelb writes:

Obama doesn’t know what’s really going on. Regarding the Middle East, he recently said that “I think it is absolutely true that what we did this year didn’t produce the kind of breakthrough that we wanted, and if we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high.” He had to be totally out of it not to realize that the Palestinians and Israelis were nowhere close to sitting down with each other and dealing.

Well, yes. And George Mitchell, Hillary Clinton, and everyone else on Obama’s team has enabled this fantasy.

But the strength of the indictment only undermines Gelb’s proposed remedy, which is to move Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod to other positions, fire a bunch of other aides (including Robert Gibbs and James Jones), and get new advisers. I agree that Emanuel and Axelrod have been front and center in many of these debacles and have a hyper-partisan outlook that has proved unhelpful to Obama. I concur that Jones, to put it mildly, “has not emerged as a strategist—perhaps the key requirement of this key position.”

But do we really think a president whose thinking is as muddled as this one’s is going to be set straight by a new crew of aides? Indeed, Gelb concedes that Obama hasn’t proved he’s up for the job:

To lead America and the world, Obama has to grow far beyond his present propensity to treat problems as intellectual puzzles—to collect facts and hear the arguments. The great tasks of governing demand proven intuition in sensing what’s achievable, which buttons to push when, how to buy the time for power to take hold, how to make adjustments without flagrantly foolish rhetoric, how to avoid failures that only diminish power, and how to succeed in small as well as large ways.

Gelb’s argument boils down to the hope that better aides can substitute for a competent president. But we know that’s not how it works. There is one president who must decide between often conflicting advice. There is one president who can connect — or not — with Middle America and roll up his sleeves to make deals with opponents. And only the president can give up the pipe dream of engaging despots. (Then there’s this problem: would any smart people want a job in the Obama administration right now?)

In the end, if the American people chose unwisely in November 2008, there is only one remedy: vote for the opposition party to check the president’s worst instincts. And if that doesn’t work, replace the president, too. If Obama can’t get up to speed and dramatically shift course, I suspect that is exactly what will happen.

Leslie Gelb has plainly had it with Obama. He observes: “The negative, even dismissive, talk about the Obama White House has reached a critical point. The president must change key personnel now. Unless he speedily sets up a new team, he will be reduced to a speechmaker.” We can quibble with the tense of that sentence, but he has a point.

Indeed, Gelb provides a list of particulars. On Afghanistan:

It’s even hard to follow his latest Afghan policy. He calls Afghanistan a “war of necessity” and orders more than 30,000 new troops there, coupled with an announcement that he’ll begin withdrawing some of them in a year plus, only to see some of his advisers say he will start withdrawals and some say he won’t.

On the Middle East, Gelb writes:

Obama doesn’t know what’s really going on. Regarding the Middle East, he recently said that “I think it is absolutely true that what we did this year didn’t produce the kind of breakthrough that we wanted, and if we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high.” He had to be totally out of it not to realize that the Palestinians and Israelis were nowhere close to sitting down with each other and dealing.

Well, yes. And George Mitchell, Hillary Clinton, and everyone else on Obama’s team has enabled this fantasy.

But the strength of the indictment only undermines Gelb’s proposed remedy, which is to move Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod to other positions, fire a bunch of other aides (including Robert Gibbs and James Jones), and get new advisers. I agree that Emanuel and Axelrod have been front and center in many of these debacles and have a hyper-partisan outlook that has proved unhelpful to Obama. I concur that Jones, to put it mildly, “has not emerged as a strategist—perhaps the key requirement of this key position.”

But do we really think a president whose thinking is as muddled as this one’s is going to be set straight by a new crew of aides? Indeed, Gelb concedes that Obama hasn’t proved he’s up for the job:

To lead America and the world, Obama has to grow far beyond his present propensity to treat problems as intellectual puzzles—to collect facts and hear the arguments. The great tasks of governing demand proven intuition in sensing what’s achievable, which buttons to push when, how to buy the time for power to take hold, how to make adjustments without flagrantly foolish rhetoric, how to avoid failures that only diminish power, and how to succeed in small as well as large ways.

Gelb’s argument boils down to the hope that better aides can substitute for a competent president. But we know that’s not how it works. There is one president who must decide between often conflicting advice. There is one president who can connect — or not — with Middle America and roll up his sleeves to make deals with opponents. And only the president can give up the pipe dream of engaging despots. (Then there’s this problem: would any smart people want a job in the Obama administration right now?)

In the end, if the American people chose unwisely in November 2008, there is only one remedy: vote for the opposition party to check the president’s worst instincts. And if that doesn’t work, replace the president, too. If Obama can’t get up to speed and dramatically shift course, I suspect that is exactly what will happen.

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