Thursday, June 24, 2010

Conservative and Liberal Perceptions of Presidential Leadership

Consider two responses to Obama’s decision to replace McChrystal with Petraeus that combine admiration and surprise. Peter Wehner, a staunchly conservative refugee from the Bush administration, can’t conceal his amazement that Obama has finally risen to a presidential occasion (my emphasis):
“The news that General David Petraeus will replace Stanley McChrystal as the commanding general in Afghanistan is a brilliant stroke by President Obama. He gets all of the benefit of relieving General McChrystal — a patriot and a hero who had a terrible lapse in judgment — and none of the drawbacks. Obama is replacing an outstanding general with one of the best in our history.”
Wehner thinks replacing McChrystal with Petraeus is a “brilliant stroke” because it enables Obama to secure the integrity of the chain of command and uphold the principle of civilian leadership over the military without undermining an ongoing military operation. To Wehner’s ear, nothing says presidential leadership like cutting a Gordian knot with a single stroke. Decisiveness might not be the essence of leadership, but it’s an essential feature of it. That’s why Wehner still admires Bush’s leadership even while he concedes that a number of his decisions may have been ill-considered.

Compare the reaction to Obama’s McChrystal/Petraeus decision from the militantly liberal Josh Marshall. He likes it just as much as Wehner. Yet, strangely, despite his evident admiration for Obama, Marshall quite never expected that he had it in him to mount a Trumanesque response to McChrystal’s provocations (my emphasis):

It's not that I don't think Obama's tough or a strong leader or decisive or whatever adjective you want to use. Having watched Obama as president for going on two years, I've found remarkable his ability to ignore the chatter, the pundits and the polls and stick to whatever his plan is. But I've also gotten used to seeing that when crises come or key gut-check moments arise his tendency is to try to conciliate the situation. Not duck it; that's not what I mean. I mean find some new vantage point to come at the situation from which you look at it again and see that it's not really just a plain yes or no, that there's some more complexity and give in the situation. And you can find some creative way to address all the relevant concerns. I just haven't seen President Obama throw down a lot of gauntlets or, to put it harshly, cut the baby in half.

“So when I woke up this morning I still couldn't quite see how President Obama could not fire McChrystal. But I also couldn't quite imagine him doing it.

“But he did. Showed me a different side of him. And what I really couldn't have imagined was that he found a way not just to acquit himself honorably and protect the office but actually enhance his prestige and standing.
In the first paragraph, Marshall can’t conceal his admiration for Obama’s propensity to defer presidential judgments in the interest of digesting all the nuances of complicated situations. You get the impression that, in Marshall’s eyes, Obama's leadership consists importantly in his propensity not to rush to judgment until he has found a "creative" way to address problems in all their complexity.  Wehner would undoubtedly disparage the same propensity as indecisiveness.

That’s why Marshall can still regard Obama as a “strong” and “decisive” leader without having a definite expectation that, confronted with McChrystal’s insubordination, he’d “[find] a way not just to acquit himself honorably and protect the office but actually enhance his prestige and standing.”  Does that suggest to you that Marshall has figured out quite what to think about president leadership?  I don't think he's the only liberal in that position.  Obama looks like another one.

No comments: