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Obama, FDR, and the summer of pundits’ disconnect

Presidents may understand the consequences of acting – and not acting – better than their advisers. Consider FDR's tussles with his Cabinet over a response to Hitler in the summer of 1941.

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    In this Friday, June 27, 2014 file photo, Saudi King Abdullah speaks before a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry at his private residence in the Red Sea city of in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on June 27. On Aug. 30, the king warned foreign ambassadors that terrorist groups will attack Europe and the United States unless they are faced with collective 'power and speed' from the international community.
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I rarely focus an entire post on a single piece of punditry, but Ron Fournier’s National Journal article today, under the title “The Summer of Obama’s Disconnect” exemplifies so many of the misunderstandings regarding presidential power that I thought it deserved my (and your) undivided attention.

Mr. Fournier’s basic point – one that has become the conventional wisdom across a good portion of the punditocracy this summer – is that in this new age of terrorism, Obama is failing to lead. As Fournier writes, “What’s unique about our times is the nature of the threats – suicidal, homicidal, genocidal terrorists, well armed and organized, seeking the destruction of the United States. The other difference: the lack of Western leadership, starting with the president himself.”

Much of that recent dissatisfaction centers on Obama’s apparent lack of a strategy for dealing with IS (the Islamic State). For Fournier, recent statements by Obama’s chief Cabinet advisers – Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel – regarding the serious nature of the threat posed by IS to the United States belies Obama’s overly cautious military approach and his characterization of IS as, at best, a regional nuisance. That disjunction in tone and in policy preferences, Fournier suggests, is evidence that Obama’s “team is divided, confused, perhaps broken.”

In interpreting the difference in rhetoric between Obama and his foreign policy advisers as a sign of internal dissension, Fournier repeats a mistake that media pundits often make. While pundits are continually interpreting differences in policy preferences as evidence of ineffective presidential leadership, the truth is that this disconnect is the logical outgrowth of advisers occupying different positions, with different responsibilities, from the president. In this respect, the presidents’ advisers are always more rivals than a team – it is the nature of a system of shared power that extends across the executive branch. But although advisers may engage in turf wars and policy disputes among themselves, they are unified in another important respect: None of them fully share the president’s vantage point. The reason is that they do not bear the consequences of presidential decisions to the same degree that the president does. This makes it far easier for advisers to advise than it is for presidents to act on that advice.

There is nothing new about this disjunction in perspectives – it is as old as the Constitution. In listening to the pundits braying about Obama’s lethargy and lack of decisiveness, I was reminded of the similar criticism leveled against FDR in the summer of 1941, including from his own Cabinet advisers. As Hitler gobbled up Europe and turned his eyes on the Soviet Union, with only Great Britain still holding out, and the Japanese ran wild in the Southeast Asia, Roosevelt, in his advisers’ eyes, dithered. The late historian James MacGregor Burns, in his excellent study, Roosevelt: Soldier of Freedom, recalls that by May 1941 “a deepening crisis of confidence enveloped the [Roosevelt] administration." Roosevelt’s Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes met secretly to discuss ways of pressuring FDR to act; “all agreed that Roosevelt was failing to lead, that the country wanted more action and less talk.”

Why was Roosevelt so passive in the face of the gathering storm? MacGregor Burns concludes that it was because the president – caught between a desire to act more aggressively on Great Britain’s behalf but facing strong resistance to military intervention within Congress and the public – did not see an optimal route to pursue. In short, “the crisis of confidence was a crisis of strategy.” So he waited, and waited some more, essentially adopting “a strategy of no strategy” until the Japanese resolved the dilemma by attacking Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Despite the bloggers’ efforts to portray Obama’s golf outings as evidence of his Alfred E. Neuman – “What, me worry?” – approach to foreign policy, I have no doubt that Obama is engaged in a similar struggle to discern an optimal strategy, when the reality is that there may not be one to choose. This is not to suggest he is totally blameless for his current predicament: He campaigned on a promise to extricate the US from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without, I believe, fully anticipating what he would do if the US withdrawal precipitated a widening of these regional conflicts and potentially elevated the risk to the US. Now, he faces a Roosevelt-like dilemma: While polls indicate the public supports air strikes against IS, those same polls reveal continuing resistance to “boots on the ground," at least in any significant fashion. And yet Obama’s military advisers warn that air strikes alone can’t defeat IS any more than FDR’s policy of all aid short of war, embodied in the Lend-Lease program, was likely to do much more than postpone Great Britain’s eventual defeat. It certainly was not going to do anything to loosen the Axis’ powers’ grip on their conquered territories, much as air strikes are unlikely to loosen IS’ grip on portions of Syria and Iraq.

What is a president to do under these circumstances? To begin, it is probably useful not to confuse a lack of visible action with a lack of concern. Second, it is important to remember that it is easier for advisers to advise because they do not bear the consequences of action. In this regard, consider MacGregor Burns’s assessment of Roosevelt’s reaction, in the summer of his disconnect, “to these demands for leadership":

"Probably more than ever [FDR] felt that he understood pace and timing better than his critics did. They simply could not appreciate the web of restraints that surrounded him. It was not enough to cry out to high heaven for leadership and decisiveness. It was a matter of drawing millions of voters, thousands of opinion leaders, and hundreds of fellow politicians in Washington into a following that could be depended on both in the day-to-day exigencies of politics and at times of national crisis and decision making. The last group, the politicians, was the pivotal element.”

So it is, I would argue, with the task facing Obama. My guess is that he appreciates the repercussions of acting – and of not acting – more acutely than do his advisers, and hence is understandably a great deal more cautious than they are in deciding what to do and when to do it. This may seem like an abrogation of leadership. But, as Roosevelt’s “policy” in the summer of 1941 reminds us, true leadership means calibrating action with what public opinion and political elites will support. It also means, however, working – behind the scenes if necessary – to see whether and to what degree elite and public opinion is malleable. Unfortunately for Obama’s leadership options, Roosevelt’s experience suggests that it often takes outside events of a dramatic nature to move both. In their absence, Obama’s policy toward IS will likely be viewed as excessively cautious by some, unduly aggressive by others – and ineffective by both. And it will be further fodder for media analysts like Fournier to castigate the president for his failure to lead.

Matthew Dickinson publishes his Presidential Power blog at http://sites.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower/.

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