What a difference a week makes.
Usually, Barack Obama rises to the occasion, no matter how high the bar. But on June 15th, a broad assortment of commentators — including allies who don’t normally inhabit the right wing’s nay-saying corner — panned the president’s nationally televised speech on the Gulf oil spill as barely passable or entirely pedestrian. Noting that he mentioned climate change only once, progressive critics wondered aloud whether he had lost his knack or his nerve. They took issue with both the substance of speech (why hadn’t he proposed a strong legislative agenda in response to the oil spill?) and its style (why wasn’t it as inspiring as those speeches he gave in 2008?).
On the latter point, it’s true that Obama’s first Oval Office address did not rank with the great speeches that have echoed in that space—for example, Ronald Reagan’s remarks after the Challenger explosion; or, in 1961, JFK telling Americans: “I hear it said that West Berlin is militarily untenable… Any dangerous spot is tenable if men—brave men—will make it so.” And on the former, Obama was determined to be realistic—he needed to put to rest the sense that the Gulf crisis was out of control, but not promise or demand overarching legislation that he likely wouldn’t be able to deliver in a waning congressional session.

With his cool steadiness, his capacity for thought, his strength under pressure, Obama is uniquely a President for our time.

But the very next day, the disappointment was dispelled and the news cycle refreshed by the $20 billion fund for damage claims that Obama sought and got from BP. Next came an incredible gift, unexpected and unearned, from Joe Barton—the tea-drenched Texas congressman who transformed himself into a household name by condemning the victims’ fund as a “shakedown” and publicly apologizing to BP CEO Tony Hayward. Sure, plenty of Republicans felt the same way, and some had even voiced the same opinion. But they recoiled upon hearing Barton say it directly to Hayward (who, ironically, could have salvaged his bleak day if he’d just rejected Barton’s apology). Suddenly, Obama wasn’t just trying to stay afloat in oily water; he seemed more in charge, on firmer ground, than at any time since the crude began gushing into the Gulf.
Then, on June 21st, the self-defeating actions of Stanley McChrystal, the US Commander in Afghanistan, came to light, seeming to validate the old myth that the Chinese character for “crisis” signifies both “danger” and “opportunity.” After a terse meeting with McChrystal, called to DC directly from the battlefield, Obama went before the cameras in the Rose Garden and with an unadorned eloquence gracefully deposed the general and replaced him with David Petraeus, the most heralded leader in the nation’s officer corps. At one stroke, the president affirmed the bedrock principle of civilian control of the military and buttressed his own relationship with the armed forces. So commanding was this Commander-in-Chief that the worsening numbers in the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, televised that night, but taken in the days before, looked antique as they rolled across the screen—almost a mere footnote to what was a defining moment for that day and perhaps this presidency.
Firing McChrystal was portrayed, predictably, as Obama’s “Truman moment.” But McChrystal is no MacArthur, a hallmark hero of World War II. For this general, there will be no ticker-tape parades through the canyons of America’s great cities.
For Obama, however, the second half of the Truman comparison holds: he still faces the question of what to do with the war itself. The conflict in Korea dragged on, driving Truman out of the 1952 race for reelection after he lost the New Hampshire primary to a challenger from his own party. The winning candidate that was another hero and general, Dwight Eisenhower, who pledged in the campaign: “I shall go to Korea.” In office, he did — and shortly afterwards signed an armistice that conceded North Korea’s hold on the half of the peninsula that McArthur had briefly liberated, before Chinese troops poured across the border. So having taken one Truman path with the dismissal of a general in charge, Obama’s challenge is to avoid the other Truman path of interminable war.
To avoid that, Obama simultaneously has to give Petraeus his chance to succeed and make sure the national security “team of rivals” is working in concert. The ironclad rule: Candor within, yes — but no second-guessing leaks and no self-serving maneuvers for position and vindication. In short, there has to be civilian control of the civilians, too.
There also has to be a resolve not to let failure become an excuse for its own perpetuation. Presumably, Petraeus has signed onto the deadline the president has set. As the architect of the Iraq surge, Petraeus hopes to duplicate the success of that strategy. But the key to the surge in Iraq, more decisive than the increase in US troop numbers, was the Sunni awakening, with tribal leaders persuaded and paid to shift their allegiance from the insurgents to the Americans. Though, in this case, The New York Times’ Tom Friedman, no automatic anti-war voice, can’t envision any such “awakening” in Afghanistan. The grim question, he argues, is only whether “we lose early, lose late, lose big or lose small.”
The next reassessment is scheduled for December, with US withdrawal set to begin next July. If there is a request for more time, for what would amount to an open-ended commitment, the president will have to make a decision that dwarfs the dismissal of McChrystal. Will he stand his ground and say, “We’ve spent ten years investing in the Afghan war while China has spent ten years investing in China—and we can’t afford another ten years”?
The Afghanistan of Hamid Karzai and his henchmen will never become a model democracy—and it’s still unclear what we foresee for the future of that society. Perhaps the best that can be attained in Afghanistan is a cold, unpalatable peace.
Paradoxically and probably, McChrystalgate and the consequent assent of Petraeus have given the Obama Administration a little more time to deal with the Afghanistan conundrum. The approach which has faltered so far in this war can be tried for perhaps a year longer. But it has to work in that time span. Otherwise, Obama will need to recall another earlier presidential moment, when one of his most hawkish predecessors withdrew US forces from Lebanon following the deaths of 241 Marines. A reluctant Ronald Reagan gave the order to leave after his chief of staff asked the National Security Advisor whether there was “light at the end of [this] tunnel”—and was told, “There really isn’t.” If the light isn’t there in Afghanistan within the next year, Obama should decide to stop digging a tunnel to nowhere.
This week in June has shown that Barack Obama is equal to making the hardest decisions. He better be—because this president is reliving, in real time and simultaneously, an array of historic challenges that tested some of his greatest predecessors from FDR to Reagan.
Two wars would be enough.
But Obama’s also facing the gravest economic crisis since the Great Depression, compounded now by an ideologically driven policy of premature retrenchment in Europe that could catch on across the Atlantic, dooming the US either to a sluggish recovery or a renewal of recession. This weekend, at the G-20 summit in Canada, the president will negotiate with the architects of this new Hooverism; they’re not McChrystals he can dismiss, but Prime Ministers bent on their regressive course. Even to sustain stimulus in this country, Obama will have to deal with the conservative lemmings here—in Congress, in both parties—who are intent on following anti-deficit mythology off the economic cliff.
(The GOP would welcome the prospect of campaigning against Obama with unemployment at ten percent or more; as for the Blue Dog Democrats, their politics is as deficient as their economics.)
Add to this an unprecedented and still uncontained environmental disaster; an unresolved energy policy; Israel’s increasing isolation; and the Iranian and North Korean nuclear threats.
Sometimes, in the swirl of events, we forget that the president has already kept us out of depression, saved the auto industry, passed health care after a century of delay, overcome fierce lobbying and achieved the wholesale reform of college student loans, and will soon sign into law the most comprehensive financial reform since the New Deal. One passable speech does not unmake a presidency. And if anyone continues to harbor the cliché that Obama’s too professorial, too indecisive, they should try offering that opinion to Stanley McChrystal. Barack Obama just understands that decisiveness is not impulsiveness—and eloquence is not empty boasting. In that, he’s different from his predecessor, who got us into so much of this pervasive mess.
With his cool steadiness, his capacity for thought, his strength under pressure, Obama is uniquely a president for our time. After watching the week that was in June, there is new reason to believe that he will come through the storms and finish the job.