Thursday, December 10, 2009

Obama Approach to Governing; Afghanistan Policy

David Ignatius's Washington Post column today, "More Than an Orator-in-Chief," provides an intriguing take on President Obama's approach to governing.

Ignatius reports that at a Dec. 1 luncheon for columnists in the White House library, Obama said:

"'If I were basing my decisions on polls, then the banking system might have collapsed, and we probably wouldn't have GM or Chrysler, and it's not clear that the economy would be growing right now.'" "Some presidents have an almost compulsive need to be popular (think Bill Clinton)," Ignatius continues. "This one is less needy, which is an advantage for him and the country."

Regarding the president's planned surge in Afghanistan, Ignatius comments, "there were the two juicy nuggets that stuck in my mind, which hint of a broader and more creative approach to governing and diplomacy. They suggest the strategic thinking in the back of our professorial president's mind....

[First, Obama said:] 'Part of the goal of my presidency is to take the threat of terrorism seriously but expand our notions of security so that it includes improving our science and technology, making sure our schools work, getting serious about clean energy, fixing our health-care system, stabilizing our deficit and our debt.' This may sound like boilerplate, Ignatius suggests, "but it's actually a pretty good manifesto for governing."

"Making responsible policy decisions isn't easy, and in the case of bailing out bankers or sending more troops to Afghanistan, it will leave nearly everyone unhappy. But Obama seems newly comfortable making enemies if he thinks he's doing the right thing."

The second insight involves the role of the Taliban. Responding to Ignatius's question about whether he would back reconciliation with the Taliban, Obama said: "'We are supportive of the Afghan government's efforts to reintegrate those elements of the Taliban that . . . have abandoned violence and are willing to engage in the political process.'

"Obama sent more signals that night at West Point: He dropped the language from his March 27 speech on Afghanistan insisting the Taliban's core 'must be defeated' and promised only to 'reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government.' He also pledged to 'support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban' who are ready to make peace.

"The Taliban gave an interesting response a few days later on its Web site, It said the group 'has no agenda of meddling in the internal affairs of other countries and is ready to give legal guarantee if the foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan.' Now, what did that mean? Was it a hint the Taliban might break with al-Qaeda? I don't know, but I hope the White House is asking Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to find out."

Ignatius concludes: "Obama has a cool and detached style that makes people forget, sometimes, that he is an innovator and a change agent. He would be wise to show the country less of the mental teleprompter and more of the fire inside."