Sen. John McCain, who demonstrated questionable political acumen by picking Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate in 2008, has joined other Republicans in blaming Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea on what McCain sees as President Obama’s limp-wristed approach to foreign policy.
The implication is that a different, stronger, more resolute American leader would have so intimidated the Russian tough guy that he would not have dared to snatch off a piece of Ukraine. This assertion is dubious in at least three ways.
The first is that Obama’s predecessor, a man who swaggered around the world starting wars and acting “resolute,” was also the guy who said he looked into Putin’s eyes, saw his “soul” and came away rather smitten. Who was bamboozled there?
The second is that when Soviet leaders barged into neighboring countries – Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979 – other American presidents also found they lacked the leverage to undo those invasions. Does anyone believe the Soviets sent their tanks rolling on those occasions because they thought the man in the White House was a wimp?
Which brings me to point three: Just like Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, Putin was driven by nationalist imperatives. The macho of the American president – or lack thereof – was not a factor.
Nevertheless, Obama’s leadership style does not exude the Clint Eastwood/Dirty Harry directness that many Americans prefer. Some have called him a “post-imperial” president. He opts for drone strikes over boots on the ground, multilateral action over unilateral projections of American force and private diplomacy over hot public rhetoric.
In the long run, Obama’s approach may be prove wiser than the muscular militarism of George W. Bush, who mired the nation in two lengthy wars with not much to show for it. Obama ended those wars (while ordering the hit on Osama bin Laden), and no one, including 99% of Republicans, wants to start another conflict over Crimea.
Would perceptions of Obama improve if he more fully embraced the theatrics of the presidency? He is a decent, rational man with a quick intelligence and a street-smart attitude. His talents include giving a great speech and throwing a hard elbow on his way to a layup. But he doesn’t look as if he loves his job, the way Bill Clinton did. Nor does he have the stagecraft of Ronald Reagan, who fully inhabited the role of president and, for many people, embodied the right look and style of an American leader.
Even if Obama wanted to change, a shift in style would be coming too late. Democrats who once had the loftiest of hopes for his presidency are now disheartened. The achievement gap is wide between all that was anticipated in the heady days after the 2008 electoral triumph and the subsequent years of gridlock. The relentless rain of slander from the right during those years has not helped Obama’s leadership image either. The conception of Obama that many Americans hold in their minds is so far from reality that it is impossible to think of anything the president could do to alter that faulty perception.
He is who he is – a cool customer. Many of us still appreciate his sophistication; plenty of others think he is better suited to run a snooty, has-been country like France. All can agree he is not a flawless leader. On the other hand, we could have done much worse. Vice President Palin, anyone?