Can a president lead with Woodward watching?
By Kathleen Parker
Sunday, September 26, 2010; A25
Question of the day: Why do presidents give the White House keys to Bob Woodward?
I ask this with all due deference, respect, hat in hand, cape over puddle and other sundry gestures owed by ink-stained wretches like me to the Most Famous Journalist on the Planet.
Through several administrations, Woodward has become president ex officio -- or at least reporter in chief, a human tape recorder who issues history's first draft even as history is still tying its shoes.
The suggestion that there was discord in the Oval Office over whether to increase troop numbers in a brutal war theater is, frankly, of great consolation. If we don't worry ourselves sick about putting lives on the line, what exactly would we concern ourselves with? Who's dancing next with the stars?
What is of some concern -- at least based on those excerpts that have leaked thus far -- is that the president gets pushed around by the generals. And that impression feeds into the larger one that Barack Obama is not quite commander in chief. He seems far more concerned with being politically savvy than with winning what he has called the good war.
Cognitive dissonance sets in when Obama declares that "it's time to turn the page" in the war that he didn't like -- Iraq -- and that is not in fact over. Fifty thousand troops remain in Iraq, while the surge in Afghanistan seems to be not enough -- or too much for too long, already.
Whatever one's view of circumstances on the ground, whether in the wars abroad or in domestic skirmishes on Wall Street, Obama seems not to be the man in charge. Nor does it seem that he is even sure of his own intentions. One telling exchange reported by Woodward took place with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). In explaining his July 2011 deadline to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, Obama told Graham:
"I have to say that. I can't let this be a war without end, and I can't lose the whole Democratic Party."
How's that? We tell the enemy when we're leaving so the party base doesn't get upset? Well, of course, public opinion matters in war, as in all things. As we've seen before, wars can't be won without the will of the people at home. But a commander in chief at least ought to know what he's fighting for and why he's asking Americans to risk their lives. If it's not a good enough reason to warrant victory, then maybe it isn't any longer a good war.
In another telling anecdote, the president asked his aides for a plan "about how we're going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan." Apparently, he didn't get such a plan. Whose presidency is this anyway?
The White House reportedly isn't upset with the way the president comes across. His portrayal is consistent with what they consider a positive profile: Obama as thoughtful and reflective. To the list might we add ponderous?
We all want a thoughtful president. As few Democrats tire of reminding us, America and the world have had quite enough of cowboys. But surely we can discard the caricatures and settle on a thoughtful commander who is neither a gunslinger nor a chalk-dusted harrumpher. Surely the twain can meet.
The Woodward Syndrome, meanwhile, presents a dilemma for all presidents. By his presence, events are affected. By our knowledge of what he witnesses, even as history is being created in real time, we can also affect these same events. Is it fair to Obama to critique him as he navigates his own thoughts? Or are we interfering with outcomes by inserting ourselves into conversations to which we were never supposed to be privy?
It's a conundrum unlikely to be resolved. If anything, in our tell-all, see-all political culture, no struggle will go unrecorded or un-critiqued. The need for strong leadership is, therefore, all the more necessary.
There's a saying that seems applicable here: Work like you don't need money, love like you're never been hurt, dance like no one's watching.
Note to President Obama: Lead like there's no tomorrow. No midterm election, no presidential reelection, no party base. Liberate yourself from the Woodward Syndrome, figure out what you think, and lead.
You are commander in chief, after all. Half the country may disagree with you, but they'll respect you in the morning.