Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Obama the Scrivener: He would prefer not to

John Podhoretz finds a great metaphor for Barack Obama's approach to leadership: Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener who answered all requests for help with the response, "I would prefer not to."
Obama is defining himself in a way that will destroy him.

It is not merely that he isn't rising to the challenge. He is avoiding the challenge. He is Bartleby the President. He would prefer not to.
The list of events that Obama is ducking leadership on keeps growing and growing. Egypt, Libya, the nation's lack of a budget for this year - these are the headline issues of the day. Then add in a catastrophic humanitarian disaster in Japan and even the President's supporters are starting to fault his leadership. He doesn't even seem to be doing well what people thought was his forte, rhetorical eloquence. His message on the rebellions sweeping the Middle East has been halting and muddled. Who can figure out what his policy is? Muslim protesters in the region are calling out to him for support and he's been ignoring them.

He's even being criticized for not making enough symbolic gestures of sympathy towards Japan.
But to some, the response has seemed muted.

“It’s a gap between the kind of personal reaction that I myself received from my American friends and the somewhat ceremonial, rhetorical statements that Mr. Obama makes… I was taken aback. I have yet to feel any personal feeling coming from Mr. Obama himself,” said Yoshi Komuri, editor-at-large of Sankei Shimbun, one of Japan’s leading newspapers.

“It seems a bit remote, too official, that’s my personal opinion.”
The President's advisers want to keep the focus on the President's priorities and message and not get distracted by events. So he's making speeches on education and bullying. He delivered a weekly radio address on Women's History Month rather than scrapping the canned speech to deliver a message of support to Japan or to rebels in the Middle East or on the budget negotiations.

It's this studied inaction
that led Democratic senator Joe Manchin to slam Obama about his lack of leadership in helping to develop a proposal on the budget instead of outsourcing the Democratic position to Harry Reid. Remember the Democrats didn't even bother putting together a budget when they had overwhelming control of the Congress. Obama was just fine with that. Now the Republicans have to clean up their mess and Obama is nowhere to be found.

Oh, I take that back. It's March so we all know where Obama can be found. He'll be on ESPN announcing his bracket choices for the NCAA basketball tournament. Then he's off to Rio de Janeiro for a five-day trip to Latin America.

His aides stress that the President is just demonstrating his calm demeanor, the same sort of equanimity that appealed to people during the campaign.

It's one thing to be calm in the face of multiple crises. It's another thing entirely to just sit back and "prefer not to" exercise any sort of leadership. And that has been the President's modus operandi for his entire presidency. He outsourced the stimulus and health care plan to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. And now he's outsourced the American response to the rebellions in the Middle East to the United Nations. Even the Washington Post is calling out for Obama to exercise some leadership.

Now we know. That calm temperament that so enthralled conservatives like David Brooks and Christopher Buckley during the campaign is really a mask for Obama's Bartleby impersonation.