Obama the wanderer

I've been struggling over the last few weeks to put my finger on what bothers me so much about Barack Obama. Yes, I know that sounds strange coming from me -- since the pages of my blog are filled with criticisms of the man and his beliefs. But there is something else that is bugging me about the Obama presidency, and it isn't so much about policy as it is a feeling that I have -- a sense of the peripatetic way he is going about this very serious job he has. I've been watching Obama now travel from media event to media event, fluttering about the country with much fanfare but little substance. There is something missing. A sense of steadiness. His devotion to his teleprompter -- already the stuff of scorn and ridicule -- is unsettling. Wasn't he supposed to be the eloquent one who wields a brilliant intellect? The next great communicator?

Peggy Noonan does a masterful job in today's Wall Street Journal of putting my sense of Obama into words -- it's a must read. I've been frustrated with Noonan's commentary about Obama since the election -- she seemed all too willing to accept the notion that Obama really is some new, transcendental leader. But no more. This most recent piece captures perfectly the true essence of the "Obama phenomena" -- full of sound and fury, and signifying nothing:

He is willowy when people yearn for solid, reed-like where they hope for substantial, a bright older brother when they want Papa, cool where they probably prefer warmth. All of which may or may not hurt Barack Obama in time...

Such impressions—coolness, slightness—can come to matter only if they capture or express some larger or more meaningful truth. At the moment they connect, for me, to something insubstantial and weightless in the administration's economic pronouncements and policies. The president seems everywhere and nowhere, not fully focused on the matters at hand. He's trying to keep up with the news cycle with less and less to say.

Our new president is chasing the news cycle, going on Jay Leno and following the cues from the dwarfs in Congress -- that august body of tax cheats and pork spenders where Obama most recently worked. He is engaged in a dance of reaction as opposed to a steady march of action, all at a time when we are dealing with crisis at home and war abroad. This is a time for steeliness and strength, and what we have is unfocused, peripatetic waffling.

Those of you who read this blog know that this comes as no surprise to me. Barack Obama is a man of great salesmanship, who understands how to get you excited to buy something, but then knows nothing of the details once you've purchased it. He's already on to the next sale, the next opportunity to close the deal and show his ability to convince and cajole. His sense of office is a constant campaign -- lots of platitudes and generalities, the kind of stuff that makes crowds clap. He's a jack of all and master of none. And now that he is the master of our collective domain -- the United States of America -- the weaknesses show through with growing clarity and alarm.

As Noonan succinctly argues, Obama has two jobs -- to fix the economy and to keep us safe. On both scores he seems wanting. When Dick Cheney recently criticized Obama for making us less safe in the wake of his recent decisions on Guantanamo and interrogation, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs reacted with disdain. Mr. Cheney is part of a 'Republican cabal.' 'I guess Rush Limbaugh was busy.' This was cheap."

Cheap and wrong. For whatever you wish to say about Dick Cheney, he know of what he speaks -- having seen first hand the post 9/11 intelligence briefings for 8 years. Cheney knows that the threat from Islamic terrorism is a constant drumbeat that can't be wished or talked away. He knows that the Obama administration has not yet found a serious footing on this issue -- and that this puts the country at risk. Noonan says it well:

What can be used will be used. We are a target. Something bad is going to happen—don't we all know this? Are we having another failure of imagination?

A month ago former FBI director Robert Mueller, in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, warned of Mumbai-type terrorist activity, saying a similar attack could happen in a U.S. city. He spoke of the threat of homegrown terrorists who are "radicalized," "indoctrinated" and recruited for jihad. Mumbai should "reinvigorate" U.S. intelligence efforts. The threat is not only from al Qaeda but "less well known groups." This had the hard sound of truth.

Contrast it with the new secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, who, in her first speech and testimony to congress, the same week as Mr. Mueller's remarks, did not mention the word terrorism once. This week in an interview with Der Spiegel, she was pressed: "Does Islamist terrorism suddenly no longer pose a threat to your country?" Her reply: "I presume there is always a threat from terrorism." It's true she didn't use the word terrorism in her speech, but she did refer to "man-caused" disasters. "This is perhaps only a nuance, but it demonstrates that we want to move away from the politics of fear."

Ah. Well this is only a nuance, but her use of language is a man-caused disaster.

Exactly right. Eight years after 9/11 and two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and we are still learning the same lesson over and over again: there are enemies who want to destroy us out there, they are Islamic fundamentalists and they can and will use any weapon they can get their hands on -- from machine guns to suitcase nuclear bombs. It isn't an issue of nuance, it is one of survival. The administration's responses -- as Dick Cheney points out -- should in no way be comforting.

These are the two great issues, the economic crisis and our safety. In the face of them, what strikes one is the weightlessness of the Obama administration, the jumping from issue to issue and venue to venue from day to day. Isaiah Berlin famously suggested a leader is a fox or a hedgehog. The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing. In political leadership the hedgehog has certain significant advantages, focus and clarity of vision among them. Most presidents are one or the other. So far Mr. Obama seems neither.

Very well said, Peggy.