The big lie that Obama can't lead is crumbling

Prizing bravado, we’ve undervalued President Obama's brand of quiet competence.

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it,” instructed the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, “people will eventually come to believe it.”

For 2-1/2 years, the big lie repeated about President Obama has been that he’s not a real leader. Responsible critics called him diffident, spineless, and rudderless. Irresponsible critics called him a socialist, a Muslim, and not an American. Now, even after his brilliant planning and direction of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, detractors are complaining that he didn’t have the guts to release photos of Mr. bin Laden’s corpse.

Outdated notions of leadership

Some of this maligning simply reflects the same savage partisan attacks leveled against every president (except Ronald Reagan) since Watergate. Some of it reflects darker bigotry toward Mr. Obama. But it also shows our outdated and wrongheaded notions of leadership.

American culture mistakenly prizes bravado and arrogance as sure signs of leadership. Public showmanship – like donning a flight suit in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner – is easy. Quiet, cool, competence that gets results – like pulling together an international coalition to protect civilians in Libya in record time – is hard.

It’s a bias we learn as kids. Our history books lionize war heroes, yet are often silent about the diplomats who prevented conflict.


Let’s recall the herculean tasks Obama has already accomplished:

  • He stabilized the worst economy since the Great Depression. Though unemployment remains stubborn, the stock market is basically back to where it was before the global economic meltdown. His stimulus bill kept America humming and saved hundreds of thousands of jobs, while his rescue of General Motors saved an industrial icon.
  • His administration kept thousands of over-extended Americans from losing their homes by laboring mightily to forestall foreclosures.
  • In spite of ferocious opposition, he passed long-overdue reforms of our health-care system that had eluded the reach of many past presidents.
  • He signed into law a bold package of regulations to boost consumer protection and restrain Wall Street’s greed.
  • He negotiated a historic nuclear-arms reduction treaty with Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev.

Forgetting these and other accomplishments, the public has regrettably bought into the corrosive and dishonest campaign to degrade Obama. Goebbels-style nihilism that rejects anything Obama does as odious remains a powerful narrative.

The good news is that Obama’s shrewd and calculated management of the hunt for bin Laden shows how hollow these critiques are.

For months, Obama discreetly oversaw the raid. He should be praised for concealing US intentions from the Pakistanis, who seemed willfully blind about bin Laden’s whereabouts.

Compare Obama’s stealth with his predecessor’s search for bin Laden. George W. Bush was embarrassingly gullible dealing with the Pakistanis. According to Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and senior adviser to four presidents on the Middle East, Bush 43 was too easily “dazzled” by Pakistan’s former president, Pervez Musharraf.

In 2002, Mr. Musharraf assured Washington that bin Laden was almost certainly dead. Later, Musharraf’s government hinted to the Bush administration that bin Laden was on a kidney dialysis machine, half dead in a cave in Afghanistan.

In his book “Deadly Embrace,” Mr. Riedel quotes former Afghan Foreign Minister Abdallah Abdallah saying, “Musharraf skillfully played the American administration, throwing ‘dust in Bush’s eyes.’ ”

Good taste

Good taste is another facet of leadership. Contrast the way the Bush administration orchestrated a public trial and execution of Saddam Hussein, turning it into a vulgar spectacle, with Obama’s shrewd refusal to publish photos of bin Laden’s body. His announcement of bin Laden’s death was restrained and sober, not at all celebratory – the right note to conclude a sensitive military operation. Obama’s later visit to ground zero was a fitting bookend to a sad chapter in United States history.

Obama’s hawkish critics chide him for allegedly “sitting on the sidelines” during recent uprisings in Yemen, Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, and Syria. Take it from someone who has reported from across the Middle East: Sitting out potential Arab civil wars isn’t abdication of leadership; it is wisdom.

And yet, when facing near-certain humanitarian disaster, Obama wisely and rapidly put together a broad NATO coalition to deal with the Libyan revolt while keeping American involvement to a minimum – no boots on the ground and no dead Americans.

It’s true that Obama hasn’t made tackling the debt a priority. But when Republicans controlled the White House and Congress for much of the past decade, US debt exploded. On that issue, the public will have to lead.

A friend, a center-right voter, told me recently, “The reason I voted for Obama is because he has no hatred in him.” In another era of divisive bitterness, Lincoln preached, “[w]ith malice toward none, with charity toward all.” It’s worth noting how closely Obama’s philosophy of leadership approaches that.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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