I’ll leave it to you to decide whether this is a matter of tactical dexterity in the service of well-defined objectives or a matter of his not having well-defined objectives to begin with. For my part, I think it depends on what policies you’re talking about: health care reform was pretty clearly a matter of the former while the kinetic military operation in Libya is pretty clearly an example of the latter. As to a lot of other policies—Afghanistan, DADT, letting the Bush tax cuts expire in the upper brackets—it’s hard to say. The one thing you can say with some assurance, however, is that the more actively Obama is engaged in governance, the less you’re likely to hear about his own governing priorities. As a rule, he doesn't talk forthrightly and govern at the same time.
So what does it tell you that Obama was wearing his priorities on his sleeve in his speech last night? Characteristically, he’d inserted himself visibly into the debt-ceiling negotiations only this month when he figured a deal had to be imminent and he saw the opportunity to portray himself as a genuine deficit-hawk who wasn’t about to sell out beneficiaries of the welfare state. He stepped back from the fray in exasperation last Friday, however, when John Boehner walked away from the negotiating table. So why was he addressing the nation now?
The conceit of last night's speech was that, in the manner of Ronald Reagan, Obama was taking the issue about how to attack the deficit—a “cuts-only” or a “balanced approach” that mixes spending cuts and tax increases--to the American people over the heads of squabbling congressmen. Whatever else you may say about Reagan, he knew how to make speech into an instrument of governance. If there were any doubt remaining, last night's speech made it pretty clear that Obama doesn't.
This bit from his speech was particularly rich:
"So I’m asking you all to make your voice heard. If you want a balanced approach to reducing the deficit, let your Member of Congress know. If you believe we can solve this problem through compromise, send that message."That request might have made some sense when Obama was still negotiating with Boehner and revenue increases were still on the table. Now that neither congressional Republicans nor Democrats are contemplating tax increases as part of a debt-ceiling deal, and Obama isn't threatening to use his veto power under any circumstances, it’s just his way of pretending that his willful disengagement from the negotiations is a form of engagement. He's talking a pretty good game, so you can be pretty sure that he's not governing.