The empty-office presidency

My new column for The Week focuses on the, er, unique handling of the launch of a new war by Barack Obama.  Before we get to my take on Obama’s absence on a South American tour during the start of hostilities against Libya, though, let’s first get Dana Milbank’s take on what he casts as Obama’s tactical error.  Ducking out of town while the bombs started falling, Milbank writes, allowed Republicans to paint Obama as weak:


But the “weak leader” charge gained traction over the weekend, as Obama chose to launch the attack on Gaddafi’s forces while on an excellent adventure in South America with his family.

At about the moment the Tomahawk missiles began to rain down on Libya, Obama was joking with Brazilians about Carnival, the World Cup and the Olympics. Rather than hearing an Oval Office address announcing the new war, Americans got word from the president in a scratchy audio recording. As thousand-pound warheads pounded Libyan forces, Obama was kicking a soccer ball, seeing the sights and watching cowboys in sequins.

It was perilously close to George W. Bush’s My-Pet-Goat moment, when then-President Bush continued reading a storybook with children on Sept. 11, 2001, after he was told that the second World Trade Center tower had been hit. Bush later said he was trying to maintain calm; likewise, White House officials tell me the decision to proceed with the South America trip was made in part to convey that the Libya bombardment was not a major military action.

Obama administration officials calculated that he would take a hit for proceeding with the voyage. But they appear to have been surprised by the force of the weakling complaint, coming not just from usual suspects such as Karl Rove but from liberals such as my Post colleague Richard Cohen, who saw Obama “quite literally distancing himself from the consequences of his own policy.”

Sorry, Dana, but this isn’t comparable to Bush’s My Pet Goat moment.  For one thing, Bush may have waited a few minutes to finish up with the kids, but he didn’t absent himself from the response for four entire days.  Bush didn’t leave the country to finish reading the book to the kids, either.  Second, the 9/11 attack came as a surprise to Bush, while Obama launched this war himself and left the country knowing full well it would take place in his absence.


Let’s talk about that decision for a moment, too.  The White House wants to argue that the trip had been planned for months, and that they deliberately chose not to reschedule it as a show of strength.  Milbank buys into that, too:

Since his earliest days on the campaign trail in Iowa, he has made clear his aversion to the flavor-of-the-day news cycle, instead measuring his progress toward a few broad-brush goals, such as American competitiveness and America’s standing in the world. If something — like, say, the uprisings in the Middle East — doesn’t fit unambiguously within his big goals, his instinct is to brush it off.

“I know everybody here is on a 24-hour news cycle,” he told reporters once. “I’m not. Okay?”

The problem for Milbank and the White House is that they have already established a precedent on postponing previously-scheduled trips when emergent situations occur, as I point out in my column:

Obama had scheduled his tour of Latin America months earlier, but the same was true of his trip to Indonesia in 2010. That trip got postponed twice as domestic politics intruded on the president’s schedule. First, Obama pushed the date from March 2010 to June 2010 in order to push his health care reform bill to final passage. In June, he postponed the trip again, this time to take more control of the Gulf oil spill. It’s hard to argue that ObamaCare ranked as a higher priority than going to war, and yet Obama refused to delay his trip to Rio de Janeiro, where photo ops depicted him playing soccer in the street and watching children dance in the first two days of his war.


Recall that the trip to Indonesia wasn’t just your typical foreign junket, either.  Obama had insisted that only a man of the world such as he could heal the breach between the West and the Muslim world, and he pledged to leverage his unique life story to bridge that gap.  The speech in Cairo was part of that strategy, as was the trip to the most populous Muslim nation — Indonesia.  It carried considerably more weight for Obama’s global strategy than a trade tour of South America.  Yet Obama postponed that trip twice, with one postponement occurring so that he could flack ObamaCare a little more to get Congress to pass it.

That’s an interesting set of priorities.  Obama refused to leave the country when ObamaCare was at risk, but refused to postpone a trip while putting the US military in harm’s way in Libya for the first time.

Note too that Obama wasn’t the only one out of the country, either:

And where was the defense secretary at this time? The second in civilian command of the military also left town on the 20th. Gates was scheduled to leave on the 19th, but he waited a day to “keep tabs” on the military action in Libya. Did he fly to consult with a member of the military coalition imposing the no-fly zone to coordinate efforts, as Obama announced two days earlier? Not exactly; Gates flew to Russia, which had to be talked out of vetoing U.N. Resolution 1973.

Once again, let’s remember the stink that arose when Chris Christie and his lieutenant governor Kim Guadagno both left New Jersey for vacations at the end of last year and a freak snowstorm locked up the Garden State.  Liberals screamed about the dereliction of duty in having both executives out of state when an emergency arose.  Now we have the two men in civilian command of the military out of the country when starting a new war.


My column concludes that most presidents would have welcomed the opportunity to demonstrate leadership at this moment.  Obama preferred to play soccer in the streets and do a samba chair dance instead.

Update: I fixed the link to, er, my own column.  Yikes.

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