Bush Is the Wrong Role Model

By Dan Froomkin
4:30 PM ET, 04/23/2009

Bush giving a speech in 2007. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

(I'm off until Monday morning.)

There's going to be an awful lot of assessing going on in the next week as we close in on the 100-day mark of the Obama presidency. And one thing I'll be watching out for is what people are using as their frame of reference. Because the one way to make sure Obama doesn't measure up is to judge him -- either consciously or unconsciously -- on the Bush imperial presidency scale.

A lot of Washington pundits seem to have internalized the view that the commander in chief of the United States should treat allies like servants, enemies like dirt, and Congress like a minor appendage of the executive branch. Anything but unilateralism -- anything that involves compromise, or deference, or shows of respect -- is interpreted as weakness. And weakness, by this reckoning, is the one unforgivable sin in an American president -- way worse than, say, profoundly bad judgment.

Here's a reminder to those who apparently yearn for a bully in the bully pulpit: It didn't work out so great last time around. Looking back on the past eight years, there were more Bush "victories" than you can count -- Congress, certainly, caved in over and over -- but they didn't end up serving the country particularly well.

And despite the growing catcalls from the right and a persistent media narrative that casts Obama as soft, the American public has no doubt that Obama is the alpha dog. In an Associated Press poll just out this morning, for instance, an overwhelming majority of Americans -- 76 percent -- say he is a strong leader.

Indeed, Ron Fournier and Trevor Tompson write for the AP: "For the first time in years, more Americans than not say the country is headed in the right direction, a sign that Barack Obama has used the first 100 days of his presidency to lift the public's mood and inspire hopes for a brighter future.

"Intensely worried about their personal finances and medical expenses, Americans nonetheless appear realistic about the time Obama might need to turn things around, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll. It shows most Americans consider their new president to be a strong, ethical and empathetic leader who is working to change Washington." Obama gets a 64 percent approval rating in the AP poll.

A Pew Research Center poll finds Obama's job approval at 63 percent, and "fully 73% of Americans – including as many as 46% of Republicans – hold a favorable view of Obama as a person."

And, Pew reports: "In conducting foreign policy, most Americans think Obama is striking the right balance in pushing American interests (57%) and in taking into account the interests and views of U.S. allies (56%). Fewer than a third (31%) believe that Obama is not pushing U.S. interests hard enough, and even fewer (19%) say he takes interests of allies too much into account."

Doesn't sound particularly weak to me.

Now it's true that there are certain problems with the Obama approach, particularly as far as the all-important-to-the-Washington-crowd "optics" are concerned. You don't always get exactly what you want. You certainly don't get all the credit. Things happen behind the scenes. They take time. There's no collecting of scalps; there's no dancing in the end zone.

But the Obama agenda is so dramatic and so enormous in scope -- so muscular, one might even say -- that even if taking a more collaborative approach means that only a somewhat reduced and modified version of it is enacted, that would still be a huge accomplishment. And, indeed, looking back at the single most significant product of the first 100 days, signs are that Obama is quite capable of getting almost exactly what he wants even while giving others a role.

Lest we forget, the $800 billion stimulus bill passed in February -- after Obama had ostensibly ceded his power to congressional leaders -- ended up being almost exactly what he had in mind: a massive down payment on his vision of a government that invests in infrastructure and green energy, streamlines health-care delivery and dramatically rebuilds the social safety net.

Furthermore, Obama's collaborative approach, both domestically and internationally, has some distinct advantages. Its achievements are likely to be longer lasting because more people are invested in their success. It's also a less hypocritical way of doing business, as it involves practicing what you preach, rather than breaking the rules for yourself while expecting everyone else to follow them.

Obama's approach to the world reflects a view of American exceptionalism that doesn't give the U.S. the right to do whatever it wants, but rather assumes that we act in ways that lead others to look up to us as a force for good. It calls for our vast military superiority to be understated, rather than overstated -- which is arguably more effective. It's certainly a radical departure from the Cheneyite/neocon principle that you have to constantly show people how strong you are. But again: That didn't work out so well for us.

And Obama is coming from a great position of strength, whether he shouts it from the rooftops or not. We remain the world's only superpower. No military challenge -- with the notable exception of occupying countries where we are unwelcome -- is beyond us. And, as noted above, the public is solidly behind him.

Nevertheless, concern about his alleged weakness has become a frequent point of criticism. The most recent occasion was his friendly-looking handshake with Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez at last weekend's Summit of the Americas. But it also pervades the look-aheads to the upcoming legislative battles over his sweeping budget proposals.

Dan Balz wrote for The Washington Post: "President Obama's weekend of summitry in Latin America will be remembered most for his cordial encounter with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. The images of that smiling handshake spoke vividly to the changes Obama is bringing to U.S. relations abroad.

"The underlying question in all this is whether Obama's approach means the United States will be dealing out of a position of strength or weakness as the new administration confronts problems ranging from Iran's nuclear ambitions to Middle East peace to better relations in this hemisphere. Does Obama's desire to deal more cordially with leaders who are hostile to the United States make him more or less likely to achieve the country's strategic goals in tough negotiations?"

Howard Kurtz wrote a couple days later in The Washington Post: "The president who was elected in no small measure because of his even temperament is getting cuffed around for not expressing displeasure, pique or outright hostility.

"This line of criticism first surfaced with the AIG bonuses, when Obama took several days to say this was an 'outrage.' But he didn't look very outraged. He said America had a right to be angry at reckless banks and that he was angry as well. But he was quite calm when he said it, missing an opportunity, in my view, to identify with the widespread revulsion at the Wall Street titans who crashed the economy.

"Now the president is being denounced for his friendly treatment of Hugo Chavez, the America-basher from Venezuela."

David M. Herszenhorn and Jackie Calmes wrote in the New York Times: "President Obama is well known for bold proposals that have raised expectations, but his administration has shown a tendency for compromise and caution, and even a willingness to capitulate on some early initiatives....

"'The thing we still don’t know about him is what he is willing to fight for,' said Leonard Burman, an economist at the Urban Institute and a Treasury Department official in the Clinton administration. 'The thing I worry about is that he likes giving good speeches, he likes the adulation and he likes to make people happy.'"

But "Obama’s top aides dismiss suggestions that he has shied from confrontation...

"'We’re not taking on a fight; we’re taking on a multiple-front fight because we’ve taken on a series of entrenched interests across the waterfront — from education to health care, and the defense industry, and the lobbying industry as a whole,' the White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, said."

So where is this Obama-is-weak meme coming from? Just guess.

David S. Cloud wrote for Politico: "Republicans are hoping they have finally found the secret to taking on President Barack Obama — by portraying him as overly apologetic about U.S. misdeeds and naive about engaging unfriendly regimes abroad."

Among the most outspoken Republican leaders on this point: Former House speak Newt Gingrich and former vice president Dick Cheney.

Foon Rhee writes for the Boston Globe: "'This administration is opposed to looking for oil in America, but bows to the Saudi king, embraces the Venezuelan dictator, I think it's a very unhealthy strategy for us,' Gingrich said on Fox News Channel. 'I think there is something fundamentally wrong with weakness in America, and then playing to placate dictators.'

"'This does look a lot like Jimmy Carter," Gingrich added. "Carter tried weakness and the world got tougher and tougher because the predators, the aggressors, the anti-Americans, the dictators, when they sense weakness, they all start pushing ahead.'"

Here's Cheney, in an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News: "I find disturbing is the extent to which he has gone to Europe, for example, and seemed to apologize profusely in Europe, and then to Mexico, and apologize there, and so forth...

"And I think you have to be very careful. The world outside there, both our friends and our foes, will be quick to take advantage of a situation if they think they're dealing with a weak president or one who is not going to stand up and aggressively defend America's interests. The United States provides most of the leadership in the world, we have for a long time. And I don't think we have much to apologize for....

"I think it's important the United States not come across as arrogant, but it's also important that we not come across as weak, or indecisive, or apologetic."

Similarly, former Bush White House aide Peter Wehner writes for Commentary: "When you braid Obama's apology tour with what some of us believe to be his weak early stands on a series of other matters.... the message Obama is sending is a potentially dangerous one: we are willing to absorb, but not to respond to, blows directed against us. And that, in turn, can set up a serious confrontation down the road.

But Mike Lupica writes in his New York Daily News opinion column that the "political discourse in this country dumber than socks....

"Now we are supposed to believe that the President doesn't really understand how dangerous the world is - only Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh really do - because he shook hands with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela....

"It makes sense to all those who think Obama can't do anything right, who decided he was the enemy of all things virtuous and patriotic long before he took the oath of office. To them, the handshake with Chavez is just the latest sign that Obama is more of an appeaser than Neville Chamberlain....

"More than anything he's done so far - whether you agree with him or not - Obama has shown that he is willing to listen. And for the past eight years, our foreign policy has been the complete opposite of that, even our allies being told to just shut up and take notes.....

"Continuing Bush's old schoolyard beef with Venezuela doesn't help us or make us safer. Neither do old rules and old grudges with Cuba. Obama shook a guy's hand this week. Only idiots think he should have left the guy hanging. Or greeted him with a clenched fist instead."

"Obama Abroad: All Soft, No Power?" That's the question Ben Bradlee and Steve Pearlstein asked their "On Leadership" panel on washingtonpost.com after Obama's European trip. Specifically, they asked: "In his overseas trip, President Obama was determined to show that he was the un-Bush, compromising and conciliatory, drawing no lines in the sand. As a new leader who is being closely watched and tested, should he have grabbed an opportunity during that same trip to demonstrate his toughness, showing his saber as well as his smile?"

But the members of Pearlstein-Bradlee's leadership panel -- people chosen for their knowledge of the topic -- were overwhelmingly supportive of the Obama approach. All but two were complimentary, and the other two were ambivalent. Consider a few of their views:

Elizabeth Sherman: "The world has had its fill of American 'toughness.' ... Obama intentionally cast himself as a leader among leaders, not the premier among underlings."

Howard Gardner: "President Obama is making it possible to have better, saner relations, and for that the whole world owes him a very big thank you."

Joanne B. Ciulla: "No one likes a bully. If there weren't people who actually believe that this is how Obama should behave, I would say it's a silly idea. Leaders who feel the need to show that they are tough are usually the ones who aren't... leaders should be tough but toughness comes from confidence and resides in deeds."

Bill Shore: "One gets the sense that he is confident and comfortable enough in his leadership that he doesn't need to go out of his way to demonstrate qualities like toughness."

And Kirsten Powers writes in her New York Post opinion column that Obama's "humility is driving the right-wing mad....

"Obama is merely doing what he always said he would -- engaging friends and foe alike. Those on the right are arguing for more of the same old, same old (ignoring some of the nations we don't like), despite the small fruit that strategy bore."

Obama's "view is premised on the idea that humility is a sign of strength. Conservatives seem to see it as a weakness.

"I'm with Benjamin Franklin, who once said, 'Humility makes great men twice honorable.'

"It does at least that for great nations."

Over in my White House Watchers discussion group, I raise a related question about what is strength and what is weakness: Where Should Obama Compromise? Please come weigh in. And I'll see you all again on Monday.

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