Commentary Magazine


Why Obama Doesn’t Seize the Day

Plainly, Obama doesn’t relish the job of being commander in chief, and more specifically, leading the West in the war against Islamic jihadists. Now, it’s true that his cool demeanor and rather grumpy countenance over the last few months suggest that there may be little he really relishes about the presidency — doing the job as opposed to obtaining the job. But at least on domestic policy, he seems to be engaged and invested. However, this is not a president who seeks to define himself as the protector of Western civilization or who leaps to the metaphorical rubble heap to seize the moment, rally the country, and level a steely warning to our enemies. He can barely be bothered to interrupt his vacation. There are several explanations for this — temperamental, ideological, and political.

As for the temperament, this is a president whom we’ve reluctantly come to see as fancying himself above gut emotions. His professorial pretensions now verge on zombie-like detachment. As John Brummett writes:

I get No-Drama Obama. I see what it’s about and agree with it usually. But I don’t much care for it when an al-Qaida-trained terrorist nearly blows up one of our airplanes on approach to Detroit on Christmas Day. In that case, the drama is already out of the bag. I want somebody to get dramatic in my behalf — outraged, I mean — and to do so instinctively and quickly, if not quite impulsively. . . You can’t avoid drama when drama already has occurred, and a terrorist attack by persons warring against you is bona fide drama already. We lull ourselves into a false sense of security when we downplay that people are trying to kill us. And while it scares us, yes, to ponder such a world, it, more to the point, makes us fighting mad.

Well, Brummett and others hoping for some feistier leadership will continue to be disappointed, I think. For this is not a president to react with outrage (pique at Fox News, maybe, but not outrage) or to even acknowledge that outrage is the appropriate reaction to his fellow citizens’ being threatened. He is not going to get fighting mad on our behalf, so we are left to be mad on our own. His detachment separates him from the country and shows a measure of his condescension toward the rest of us who think that leadership is about more than ordering up a dizzying array of bureaucratic reports after nearly 300 people come close to getting incinerated in mid-air.

Beneath Obama’s disdain for the emotional content of wartime leadership lurks, as we have seen, a stubborn reluctance to acknowledge exactly who we are up against. Marty Peretz notes:

If the president were truly sentient, he would not be content to enumerate the macrophysics of what we have done: “Our progress has been unmistakable… We’ve disrupted terrorist financing, cut off recruiting chains, inflicted major losses on al-Qaeda’s leadership, thwarted plots here in the United States, and saved countless American lives.”


But what has been the animating motive for the terrorist efforts to dispose of Americans and Europeans, Hindus and Christians, Jews and non-believers, and, of course, Muslims, albeit from antagonistic or divergent sects — infidels and heretics, really — in the religious vocabulary? It is an ideological certainty laced through the Islamic tradition and the Islamic present. . . So, in rendering the gross and the mad, we must be truthful about the essentials and about the shadings. No, it is not everybody — not by a long shot. But it is plenty. We must know whom we are fighting. Alas, if we don’t also know what we are fighting and what we are fighting for, we are fighting blind.

But this is not a president who wants to educate and inform the public about our adversaries’ motives. He prefers the perspective of a benign Muslim world that must be reassured and engaged and to which America must prove its sincerity and goodwill. He couldn’t label Major Nadal Hassan a jihadist, and he resists even in his most robust comments using the words “Islamic fundamentalist” or “Islamic jihadist.” It plainly rankles him to identify specifically who these “extremists” are and what their “far-reaching network of violence and hatred” is really all about.

And finally, much of this seems to concern a political disposition — a desire to be anti-Bush, to focus on a rather radical domestic agenda, and to husband resources (both political and economic) for the domestic proposals that animate the new president. One senses that even after a year in office, during which there have been three domestic terror attacks and two wars, he just wants to get “beyond all this.” It simply isn’t what he wants to do. He sees no political upside in it, and it isn’t how he thinks he’s going to earn a second term. Yes, his most successful and popular political decision (albeit a halting and conflicted one) in recent months was committing troops to Afghanistan. But the potential positive impact of that decision seems not to have registered. Soon after the West Point speech, he popped up on 60 Minutes to assure us that the commitment was limited and that his eye was fixed on our domestic needs.

Unfortunately we are engaged in two wars and do face a fanatical enemy. We could use a president who grasps the emotional content of wartime leadership, who understands the ideological nature of our foes, and who comprehends that no president can be successful unless he excels as commander in chief. Maybe Obama can become that president. But candidly, it will be a stretch.

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