23 Mar 2011

“Like the Chameleon on the Aspen”

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Reportorial jaws were heard dropping out as far as the Blue Ridge, when Barack Obama hinted yesterday that regime change in Libya might not be essential.

The Politico reports

President Obama indicated on Tuesday that Muammar Qadhafi may still have an opportunity to “change his approach” and put in place “significant reforms” in the Libyan government.

Asked by NBC’s Savannah Guthrie what the U.S. commitment is in Libya if Qadhafi remains in power but continues to pose a threat to his people, Obama appeared to leave the door open for political reforms.

“You are absolutely right that as long as Qadhafi remains in power, and unless he changes his approach and there are significant reforms in the Libyan government that allow the Libyan people to express themselves, there are still going be potential threats against Libyan people—unless he is going to step down,” Obama said.

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James Poulos contends that this kind of erratic policy shifting has become a recognizable pattern of the Obama presidency.

Obama’s puzzling leadership style has driven more than a few critics to plunge into labyrinthine investigations of his personality in the hopes of finding some explanatory key tucked away at its center.

Nonetheless, this is a fool’s errand. What matters is not whether the president is, for instance, a passive-aggressive guy, but whether he is a passive-aggressive president. The soap opera surrounding our Libyan engagement, and Obama’s halting and irregular efforts at managing it, have me convinced that the answer is yes.

A pattern has emerged. With the Wisconsin union drama, with the long, tormented passage and reversal of Obamacare, even with the Skip Gates scandal, the president has oscillated, one way or the other and sometimes both, between a mild-mannered non-interventionism and a terse, testy, yet attenuated variety of interventionism. So it is again with Libya. Neither the passivity nor the aggressiveness is without its bemused critics, right and left. And neither has proven very effective. Put together, they seem to deliver the worst of both worlds. His errors unforced, his support unreliable, his strategy inscrutable, Obama as president has time and again left allies and opponents in an uncanny perpetual lurch.

I think myself that, as was speculated by some on the basis of Obama’s autobiography and his 2008 campaign, that Barack Obama operates in most circumstances with the most extreme caution, voting “Present” 130 times in the Illinois State Senate, defining himself with broad strokes of gorgeous rhetoric, and intentionally allowing his audience to project their wishes and fantasies onto him without committing himself to very much.

Barack Obama proved to be personally deeply invested in socializing health care, but beyond that single issue he has merely played the part of a conventional democrat, faithfully delivering the goods to important constituencies from SEIU to Goldman Sachs. Outside of trading political favors for support, and extending the welfare state one more big step, Barack Obama has proven timid, indecisive, and prone to reverse positions.

He has not withdrawn from Afghanistan, he has not closed the holding facility at Guantanamo, and he has reversed course on civil trials for terrorists. Serious issues, particularly risky choices in the realm of foreign policy (where former law lecturers, foundation board members, and state senators may feel just a bit out of their depth) seem to induce paralysis and vacillation.

Watching Obama’s behavior with respect to the civilian insurrection against the Libya dictatorship, I find myself reminded of John Randolph of Roanoke’s description of his cousin Edmund Randolph: “Like the chameleon on the aspen, always trembling, always changing.”

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