Obama's real foreign-policy problem: He doesn't set goals

There is merit to much of the White House’s analysis of his image problem, but Obama and his top aides are missing something about the way he is understood, at home and abroad. It is not true, as some of his critics allege, that he is uninterested in foreign policy. He is very interested and can talk for hours with great fluidity on the subject. But when he talks — not necessarily in grand settings, such as today’s speech — but with foreign leaders, Congress and the news media, he often sounds as if he’s auditioning for the role of foreign-policy analyst on the PBS “NewsHour.” It’s all logic and dispassion and half-measures.

Foreign policy, for him, is a management challenge: containing threats, quieting unhappy allies, limiting damage. There is no particular vision associated with his detached, cold-eyed approach to foreign affairs. He recently described his policy this way: “You hit singles; you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.”

This is an accurate rendering of presidential reality, and yet it is strikingly unambitious, especially from a politician who initially promised so much. Obama is not the analyst in chief. He sometimes seems hesitant to set lofty goals — stopping the slaughter in Syria, rolling back the advance of autocracy — because he’s afraid that the words would commit him to action. This is understandable, given the rhetorical and actual overreach seen during George W. Bush’s first term. And yet setting impossible goals, shining-city-on-a-hill goals, speaks to the noblest part of the American experience.