By Ruth Marcus
WASHINGTON: Style points? Seriously? Style points? That’s what President Obama thinks the criticism of his zigzag Syria policy amounts to?
As presidential spin, this is insulting. As presidential conviction — if this is what he really believes — it’s scary.
Obama’s dismissive remarks came in response to a question by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, who asked the president about criticisms of his approach as ad hoc, improvised, and unsteady.
“Folks here in Washington like to grade on style,” Obama sniffed. “And so had we rolled out something that was very smooth and disciplined and linear, they would have graded it well, even if it was a disastrous policy. We know that, ‘cause that’s exactly how they graded the Iraq War until it ended up blowing [up] in our face.”
Indeed, Obama portrayed capital insiders’ scorn as a badge of honor. “What it says is that I’m less concerned about style points, I’m much more concerned about getting the policy right,” he continued, taking credit for Syria’s having acknowledged its possession of chemical weapons and agreed to put them under international control. “That’s my goal,” Obama said. “And if that goal is achieved, then it sounds to me like we did something right.”
See? All’s well that ends well. Let the judges carp about whether the administration stuck the landing.
Except that this self-serving account omits two important facts. First, we’re a long way from knowing that this episode has ended well. No one can rely Russian promises and Syrian good will. This may well be a bullet only temporarily dodged, a pause in the crisis rather than a signpost of its solution. Even a successful outcome of a chemical weapons deal risks the perverse impact of further entrenching a regime that has murdered tens of thousands of its own people.
Second, presidential actions have ripples beyond ripples. Obama may have lucked — or his secretary of state accidentally may have stumbled — into an approach that averted the Perils of Pauline moment. But the indecision, the mind-changing, the lurching — and, note, Obama did not dispute such characterizations so much as dismiss them — have consequences.
“Style,” as the president would have it, matters. Adversaries and allies, foreign and domestic, take a measure of the president’s steel. They judge whether he can be trusted, whether he will back down, whether he has what it takes to lead the country and the world. I have not encountered a single person outside the White House in the last few weeks, Republican or Democrat, who has kind words for Obama’s performance. Scornful may not be too strong a word for the consensus view, though it is scorned leavened, at least among the more thoughtful critics, with appreciation for the no-good-options reality of Syria.
This attitude is especially important because it arrives at such a dangerous moment for the country, with looming deadlines on government funding and the debt ceiling, and because it is amplified by presidential mishandling of other matters.
Obama’s dawdling and eventual capitulation on Larry Summers, his reported first choice for chairman of the Federal Reserve, further reinforce the perception of the president as weak and indecisive. Given the other matters on the presidential agenda, it may not have made sense to launch a fight, this one with his supposed allies, over Summers. But once again, Obama made the situation worse by allowing it to fester for so long, and for the opposition to Summers to build.
So Obama enters yet another treacherous period in a weakened state, with his political allies distrustful and his political opponents caught up in their own dysfunctionality. Machiavelli advised that it is better to be feared than loved; at the moment, in Congress, Obama is neither.
The fast-approaching deadlines — the government runs out of money Oct. 1, out of borrowing authority Oct. 18 — arrive at a moment when would-be responsible Republicans, chief among them House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, cannot control the lunatics in their caucus. This group is so consumed by distrust of government and hatred of Obamacare that it is willing to risk the full faith and credit of the United States.
“The anarchists have taken over,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said last week. “They’ve taken over the House, now they’re here in the Senate.”
Boehner’s angling to avoid a shutdown and instead use the debt ceiling for maximum leverage. Obama, having previously blinked, says he’s done with that: No more negotiating on the debt ceiling. Is it any wonder that there are doubters?
Marcus is a Washington Post columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.