At this dramatic time, with a world on fire, we look at the president and ponder again who he is. Mr. Obama himself mocked how people see him, according to a remarkable piece this week by Peter Baker in the New York Times. NYT +1.10% “Oh, it’s a shame when you have a wan, diffident, professorial president,” he reportedly said, sarcastically, in a meeting with journalists before his big Syria speech. Zbigniew Brzezinski told Mr. Baker the president’s critics think he’s a “a softy. He’s not a softy.”
Actually, no one thinks he’s a softy. A man who personally picks
drone targets, who seems sometimes to enjoy antagonizing congressional
Republicans, whose speeches not infrequently carry a certain
undercurrent of political malice, cannot precisely be understood as
But we focus on Mr. Obama personality and psychology—he’s weak or
arrogant or ambivalent, or all three—and while this is interesting, it’s
too fancy. We are overthinking the president.
His essential problem is that he has very poor judgment.
And we don’t say this because he’s so famously bright—academically
credentialed, smooth, facile with words, quick with concepts. (That’s
the sort of intelligence the press and popular historians most prize and
celebrate, because it’s exactly the sort they possess.) But brightness
is not the same as judgment, which has to do with discernment, instinct,
the ability to see the big picture, wisdom that is earned or natural.
Mr. Obama can see the trees, name their genus and species, judge
their age and describe their color. He absorbs data. But he consistently
misses the shape, size and density of the forest. His recitations of
data are really a faux sophistication that suggests command of the
subject but misses the heart of the matter.
You can run down the list. His famous “red line” comment was poor
judgment. He shouldn’t have put himself or his country in that position,
threatening action if a foreign leader did something. He misjudged the
indelible impression his crawl-back would make on the world.
Last month it was the “I don’t have a strategy” statement on the
Islamic State. That’s not something an American president attempting to
rouse the public and impress the world can say. But he didn’t know.
ObamaCare top to bottom was poor judgment. It shouldn’t have been the
central domestic effort of his presidency, that should have been the
economy and jobs. He thought his bill could go forward without making
Republicans co-own it, thought it would be clever to let Congress write
it, thought an overextended and undertalented federal government could
execute it. He thought those who told him the website would work were
truthful, when he should have been smoking out agendas, incompetence and
yes-sir-ism. He shouldn’t have said if you like your doctor you can
keep him. That was his domestic red-line comment. It was a product of
The other night, at the end of his Syria speech, he sang a long,
off-point aria to the economy. Supposedly it would be ringing and
rousing, but viewers looked at each other and scratched their heads. It
didn’t belong there. It showed a classic misjudging of his position. The
president thinks people are depressed because they don’t understand how
good the economy is. Actually right now they are depressed because he
is president. It was like Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech. It wasn’t a bad
speech, but he wasn’t the person who could give it because voters
weren’t thinking malaise was the problem, they were thinking Mr. Carter
was. He couldn’t relieve public unhappiness because people had come to
think he was the source of it.
Mr. Obama misjudged from day one his position vis-à-vis Republicans
on Capitol Hill. He thought they were out to kill him. Some were! That’s
Washington. But Republicans in 2009 were more desperate than he
understood, and some could have been picked off, because they thought he
was the future and they didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history.
To get their support on health care he would have had to make
adjustments, bend a little so they could play ball without losing all
standing and self-respect. He couldn’t do it. He didn’t see their
quandary. He allowed them to stand against him with integrity. That was
Libya? Poor judgment. A nation run by a nut was turned into a nation
run by many nuts, some more vicious than the dictator they toppled.
Russia? The president misread it, which would only have been a mistake,
if a serious one, if it hadn’t been for his snotty high-handedness
toward those who’d made warnings. To Mitt Romney, in debate, in October
2012: “The 1980s—they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy