President Obama exposed a sobering reality to the American people this week. That is, he revealed himself. Given the extraordinary circumstances and sheer number of decisions they have demanded, Obama is already filling out the contours of his leadership qualities. That reality is probably more consequential than the disturbing news regarding the economy or the war in Afghanistan.
For all his obvious talents, Obama may well be dwarfed by the severity of the moment. Obama was the most gifted of all the viable candidates for the presidency, not only in this election, but also for the past several. Still, he may come up short.
If that seems gratuitous-or a glib grab at a topic of discussion given his mere fifty days in office-consider that Obama and his administration have already had to make key decisions on the most important issues facing the nation and the world: from addressing the mortgage/financial crisis; to crafting a strategy in Afghanistan; to dealing with Iran; to selecting a head for Treasury; to choosing a chairman for the National Intelligence Council (NIC), and the attendant implications for U.S. policy towards Israel. On many of those issues, Obama has commendably broken new ground, but the president's efforts seem important but insufficient. Given the scale of the national and global crisis (compliments of Bush), insufficient is now tantamount to failure.
The New York Times reported this week that Obama had ordered a temporary halt to raids in Afghanistan, given concerns that the civilian casualties they caused were creating detrimental hostility. It certainly is encouraging that Afghan anger gives Obama pause. The administration also took the welcome step of inviting Iran to participate in multilateral talks regarding the future of Afghanistan-a noteworthy overture. But given reports of continued U.S. drone attacks along the border with Pakistan, the Obama administration does not appear poised to woo the native population. It therefore remains unlikely that Afghans will be hospitable to the new U.S. troops set to arrive in their country. Given the "human terrain" servicemen and women will be operating in, the chances of success in Afghanistan appear dim, despite all the blood and treasure spent there.
The administration has recently taken a sensible step in requiring banks that receive federal funds to restructure mortgages for its most cash-strapped borrowers. But here, the administration seems to have advanced only tentatively, because the restructuring only applies to interest payments, not principal. This means that for most borrowers whose mortgages are higher than the current value of their homes, it makes better sense to ditch the home and the mortgage. The Obama administration could have taken several routes to addressing the crisis, but in deciding on mortgage restructuring as part of the solution, it should have followed that concept to its logical conclusion. Obama now faces the risk of having taken some positive action but not enough to restore consumer confidence and ease credit conditions. This could cause considerable consequences for the nation and the world, since some economists warn that the U.S. economy is in some danger of flatlining for some undefined period of time.
On the stimulus package that ultimately gained congressional passage, Obama seems to have misrepresented the urgency of the bill. While it is true that Congress did not have time on its side to debate a bill, the approval of stimulus funds was not going to reinvigorate the economy overnight. In the run-up to the approval of the bill, Obama's call for immediate action seemed to preempt the possibility of debate-echoing the tone and tenor of the former administration. Still, the Republicans grandstanding on their latter-day fiscal conservatism to a large degree exonerates Obama's stridency on the issue, especially since his administration at least held backroom debates with the Republicans on the stimulus.
Obama's push for his pick for Treasury, Timothy Geithner, was also reminiscent of the Bush administration in some respects. Given the post to which Geithner was being considered, his difficulties in paying his taxes were highly relevant and greater fiscal propriety should have been expected of the candidate. But the administration stuck with Geithner as if he was the only worthy option, echoing Bush's indispensability defense of granting no-bid contracts for Halliburton and others.
And finally, there is the much discussed decision by Charles Freeman to withdraw his candidacy to chair the NIC. Given the volley of statements on the matter, it seems probable that the pivotal issue precipitating his withdrawal was Freeman's position on Israel and U.S. policy towards it. Consider Senator Chuck Schumer's comment on Freeman: "Charles Freeman was the wrong guy for this position. His statements against Israel were way over the top and severely out of step with the administration. I repeatedly urged the White House to reject him, and I am glad they did the right thing."
Given statements by Schumer and others, the Obama administration is now widely seen as being unwilling to challenge the activists that have the most rigid and military-minded perspective on advancing Israel's interests. In Obama's defense, the president might make more policy progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front if high-level positions are staffed with people that the aforementioned activists tend to trust or are neutral towards. Such staffers might be more uniquely qualified to deliver some tough love to both the Israelis and Palestinians. This may seem an elliptical kind of logic, but it could partially explain Obama's pick for secretary of state.
Still, for the NIC post in particular, the Obama administration needed an independent and creative thinker-which Freeman appears to be. And the central problem for Obama in the Freeman affair is the fact that the administration let its consideration of the former ambassador progress the way it did, if it was ultimately unwilling to defend its choice. Because even if Freeman was not asked to withdraw, as Schumer suggests he was, then he was apparently not encouraged to soldier on. Surely the reaction to Freeman was not entirely surprising. The administration could, and should have, anticipated it for Freeman's sake as well as its own. Obama's main sin, therefore, may have been myopia and incompetence-also signature Bush gaffes.
Obama's weaknesses are not more severe than those of recent presidents. Indeed, he is a cut above. It is the circumstances that have changed.
Ximena Ortiz is a senior editor at The National Interest.