John Hughes

Forget the birth certificate. The real question is: Where is Obama's leadership?

Obama has proven to be aloof and withdrawn on issues both at home and abroad, leaving us so far with a fuzzy picture of his leadership.

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The Trump-for-president campaigners have been obsessed with whether President Obama was actually born in the United States. The really intriguing question, however, is not “Where was he born?” but “Who is he?”

During the 2008 campaign, Mr. Obama sent shivers down the spines of many Americans with electrifying oratory that swept him into the White House on a tsunami of public anticipation and excitement.

By many accounts, he has since proved to be a president of aloofness and withdrawal on issues both at home and abroad – an approach that defies attempts to define his vision and leaves us so far with a fuzzy picture of his leadership.

Is he an overcautious politician, practicing a sphinxlike reticence to avoid damaging his aura? Or is he simply incapable of the resolute decisionmaking that a President Ronald Reagan or even a President Bill Clinton would have brought to these turbulent times?

Wavering on Egypt, Libya

On the international scene, Obama backed and filled on whether to push Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak off his throne. On the issue of Libya, he procrastinated on taking action while Muammar Qaddafi waged a brutal campaign against pro-democracy insurgents. He shunned the lead role the US should have taken in humanitarian intervention in Libya. Only after significant pressure from the international community did Obama sign on to a French and British-led United Nations resolution to protect the Libyan rebels, with limited American participation, soon largely suspended.

In a well-analyzed speech, the president offered a puzzling definition of his foreign-policy doctrine, which seemed to say that the US might or might not intervene in instances of aggression, but only with multilateral support and not for very long, depending on how tough the circumstances were.

At home: on the sidelines, few specifics

On the home front, Obama has given lip service to addressing America’s mind-boggling debt, but has offered few specifics. He has seemed disengaged from the budget-cutting recommendations of his own appointed deficit commission.

Recently, he essentially sat on the sidelines until the Republicans unveiled House Budget Committee Chairman Republican Paul Ryan’s bold deficit-reduction plan. Then he savaged it in a speech offering broad-brush views of his own thinking on the issue. That in turn spurred a partisan response from Mr. Ryan. This is not a hopeful omen for Republican-Democratic cooperation on an issue of monumental national importance.

In his deficit-reduction proposal, Obama offered the prospect of lower tax rates for some, but higher taxes for the wealthy. This would be a popular platform on which to run in the 2012 presidential election. By contrast, Ryan’s plan involves a political poison pill in proposing substantial changes to the Medicare problem, changes that might be disadvantageous to many older Americans.

Obama is ducking real reforms

If the US is ever to substantially reduce its mounting national budget deficit, the current costs of Medicare and Social Security, which make up a huge proportion of the budget, must be curbed. Beyond brief talking points, Obama is ducking the politically charged issue of entitlement reform while lambasting the Republicans for “asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it.” This may be smart politics in 2012, but it is not the kind of White House leadership required to solve the entitlement problem.

The only way tough changes in Medicare and Social Security can be made is with genuine bipartisan accord in Congress. Both Republicans and Democrats will need to share the political flak, not only from the voters, but from within their own parties – the tea party caucus in Republican ranks and the liberal left among Democrats. Unfortunately, prospects for such cooperation providing political cover currently look gloomy.

Obama has assigned Vice President Biden to be his point man in the looming battle in Congress over deficit reduction plans. Mr. Biden is a man of irrepressible energy and volubility, but he will have his work cut out for him. He can only move a deal so far forward. In the end, the president will have to demonstrate an involvement and leadership that has so far been elusive.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.

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