President Barack Obama seems to have decided he is not “the decider,” the term George W. Bush used in articulating his role as president.
Over the last week, the president, facing sharp criticism even from traditional allies, has opted against a military strike in Syria that he at first considered the best policy and stopped pushing for his former aide Larry Summers to become head of the Federal Reserve when it became clear Senate Democrats would look to block Summers.
Some have suggested these moves point to a weakened president, lacking the ability to sway members of Congress or the American public to support him or the boldness and gumption to simply charge ahead anyway.
That view is wrongheaded. The presidency is not a license to push your agenda at every moment, without the support of the people or their representatives. It’s not a test of wills, boldness or charm. It’s not a job, as President Bush illustrated repeatedly in his eight years in office, where having unbending positions and an unwillingness to concede mistakes is helpful.
I do not mean to defend Obama’s policy vision on these two issues. A strike in Syria to punish the Assad regime for their use of chemical weapons was a logical policy response, but critics who worried it would accomplish little were also correct.
Obama’s advocacy of Summers remains a mystery to me; the former Treasury Secretary has not only alienated people in virtually every job he has held, but was a major figure in the development of both the Clinton-era deregulation policies of the 1990s and the 2009 stimulus, which most economics now argue was much too small to ensure the U.S. economy recovered fully. The appointment would have continued the president’s troubling pattern of tapping white males to many of the most important roles in government, particularly on economic policy, relying on the flawed rationale that the people with the most experience are therefore most qualified.
But the president showed wisdom, not weakness, in conceding to his critics on these issues. Striking Syria was a questionable policy; striking Syria after the British Parliament, nations around the world, a bi-partisan majority of the American public and members of Congress of both parties all signaled strong opposition would have weakened Obama by suggesting he did not care about domestic or international opinion. It would have reinforced the perception (and the reality on some issues) that the man who won in 2008 by repudiating George W. Bush’s national security policies was mimicking them in office.
Spending weeks or months defending Summers, who many Democrats were determined to block from heading the Fed, would have been wasting presidential time that could be spent on other issues, particularly since there is little evidence that Summers is the only or even most-qualified person for the job.
Presidents and administrations often make mistakes. All wisdom in governing is not concentrated at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. And some fights simply aren’t worth having. Janet Yellen, the other top candidate to run the Fed, is qualified for the job and well-liked by fellow Democrats, unlike Summers.
Obama seems to understand this. He avoids long political battles when he can, such as allowing Susan Rice to withdraw her name as secretary of state last year, as the president knew he could soon tap her as national security adviser, a role with perhaps even more power, if less prestige.
At the same time, he’s not abandoning his true, core principles; everyone knows the votes Republicans keeping pushing in Congress to repeal “Obamacare” are meaningless, as the president defends that law consistently and strongly. Earlier this year, Obama successfully forced Republicans to accept higher taxes on the wealthy, one of his other long-held policy goals.
We often think of leadership as having the “courage of your convictions.” The emphasis is on courage. But the American president should always make sure he is pushing his true convictions, not just his opinions of what is best, particularly if the facts suggest otherwise.
Obama at times is ready to toss aside his opinions, and that should be applauded.