Henninger: Presidential Followership

Many have questioned Obama's leadership role since taking presidency. The U.S., and the rest of the world, are at the edge of political and economic instability. What is needed now is U.S. presidential leadership, but it looks like we are getting presidential followership instead.

By DANIEL HENNINGER
Wall Street Journal

At the president's news conference Tuesday, when a reporter wondered whether setbacks on gun control and the sequester suggested Mr. Obama was having problems pushing his second-term agenda, the president replied, "Well if you put it that way, Jonathan, maybe I should just pack up and go home."

Whoa, big fella. The presidency is a big game. We want you suited up and on the floor.

That the presidency attracts individuals focused on Number One is no revelation. But it has always been possible that one of them would disappear so far into the ethers of ego that neither he nor anyone else would know where the country was going. In an all-media world, that's not good, and even dangerous.

Which may explain why, within hours of the answer Mr. Obama gave on Syria in the news conference, the administration dribbled out to the media that Mr. Obama is in fact getting ready to "assert more aggressive leadership" on Syria, including sending lethal weapons to the opposition.

Mr. Obama said previously the Assad regime would cross a "red line" if it used chemical weapons. This would be a "game changer." Since then, there have been reports out of France, the U.K., Israel and even a U.S. intelligence assessment that this is what Assad has done. The question asked by Fox's Ed Henry was whether Mr. Obama would put U.S. "credibility" at risk by doing nothing.

The relevance of the answer here goes beyond Syria. The U.S.—and the world—are only four months into Mr. Obama's additional 48-month tenure as American president. The U.S. and the world are at the edge of political and economic instability. What's needed now is U.S. presidential leadership. What it looks like we and the world are getting instead is presidential followership. Or worse, presidentially-induced confusion.

Here is an abridged tour through Tuesday's answer on Syria:

My policy from the beginning has been . . . for Assad to step down and to move forward on a political transition. . . . We've organized the international community. We are the largest humanitarian donor. . . . What's happening in Syria is a blemish on the international community, and we've got to make sure that we're doing everything we can to protect the Syrian people.

"I've also said that the use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer, not simply for the United States but for the international community. And the reason for that is that we have established international law and international norms. . . . So when I've said the use of chemical weapons would be a game changer, that wasn't unique to—that wasn't a position unique to the United States, and it shouldn't have been a surprise. . . . But we don't know who used them. We don't have a chain of custody. . . . We've also called on the United Nations to investigate."

This is a president who likens himself to Franklin D. Roosevelt? That answer is omnidirectional babble on an issue that has the "international community" of Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Lebanon and Jordan on tenterhooks; and strategic chess players watching in Russia, Iran, North Korea and China.

If it annoys Mr. Obama's supporters to have his performance this week described as political chameleonism rather than thought-out leadership, let's move to another question about something they want—the closing of Guantanamo, as promised in 2009.

"It's easy to demagogue the issue." Mr. Obama said. Uh-huh, but what's to be done? "Ultimately we're going to need some help from Congress. And I'm going to ask some folks over there who, you know, care about fighting terrorism but also care about who we are as a people to step up, and help me on it." But that means he has to have a drink with Mitch McConnell. Mr. Obama's distancing of himself from both parties in Congress on legislative matters is the stuff of Washington legend.

(We'll pass over his "What, me worry?" answer on the late-running ObamaCare Express.)

Whatever the Obama agenda may be, he's got 40 more months. Or maybe less than that. If the president's standing with the American public declines, his goal of taking back the House next year becomes more improbable than ever. Democratic politicians with campaigns to run will head for the tall weeds. When that happens, what's left?

Tuesday's meandering mess of a news conference exposed that his first term's permanent campaign—attempting to reframe all issues to maximize him and minimize his opposition—is going to be inappropriate for the only thing Mr. Obama has got now: a mere American presidency.

Whether Roosevelt, Nixon, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, every second-term president must in time come to grips with the reality that it can't be about just his agenda or just him. It, the presidency, is unavoidably about offering clear leadership for all the American people and a watching, always unsettled world. If Barack Obama insists it's about something else, everyone, including him, will have their bags packed for a long 40 months.

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