Gergen: We only have one president at a time

CNN political analyst David Gergen believes that Barack Obama made a political mistake in engaging Nouri al-Maliki on the question of the American presence in Iraq. He stepped over the line in explicitly admitting what amounts to negotiations with an American ally during wartime, a role that rightly belongs to the executive under all circumstances. Gergen calls this the first real political mistake of Obama’s trip — but will anyone notice?

David Gergen: “I think it was the first — Barack Obama made the first mistake of his trip, in my judgment, in releasing a statement in which he said exactly what Maliki had said in those conversations. We have a long tradition in this country that we only have one president at a time. He’s the commander in chief and the negotiator in chief. I cannot remember a campaign which a rival seeking the presidency has been in a position negotiating a war that’s under way with another party outside the country. I think he leaves himself open to the charge tonight that he’s meddling, that this is not his role, that he can be the critic, but he’s not the negotiator. We have a president who does that. So, I think the underlying facts support him, but I think it would be a real mistake — and I think it was a mistake — to get into these conversations and let it be used politically.”

CNN’s Anderson Cooper: “That’s interesting. Gloria, do you think this is the first mistake he made on this trip?”

Gloria Borger: “You know, it’s very interesting, I do agree with David. And Candy, in her earlier piece, talked about walking the fine line between being this candidate and being presumptuous. And I think that he may just have crossed that, because, you know, it is a tradition. You don’t talk about these private conversations. And it’s not up to Barack Obama right now to negotiate troop withdrawals. It’s up to Barack Obama to be on a fact-finding mission, which is indeed what he has said he was on.”

On the face of it, Gergen is correct. In fact, Obama’s intervention violates two principles of American politics. First, presidential candidates do not conduct foreign policy. They can, as Gergen notes, criticize it all they want, but they have no standing to enter negotiations. Neither do Senators or Congressmen, either, as the Constitution explicitly leaves that to the executive branch. Obama had no standing to discuss troop withdrawals, trade policy, or even the exchange rate with Maliki.

That being said, the latter restriction has been breached repeatedly by both sides over the last few years. Both Republicans and Democrats have gone on “fact-finding missions” to Iraq in order to bolster their own policies. What makes this look worse than usual was Obama’s insistence that he didn’t need a fact-finding mission to arrive at his conclusions before going to Iraq, and that nothing he saw would change his mind on his policy. That makes his effort appear to be a transparent effort to negotiate on behalf of his own policy — and his statement look as though he succeeded at it.

Further, most people expected Obama to do just what he did. His trip was certainly no secret, nor was his insistence that he was there to dictate solutions, not gather suggestions. Perhaps this objection would have been more effectively raised before he left, but now I doubt most people will notice the overreach.