A Neustadt Moment for Obama?

Inconveniently for someone in our business, I am spending most of today in transit -- the past  three hours by car, the next six by airplane. Briefly, before boarding a flight at LAX, these reader comments on my assessment late last night of President Obama's announcement that Osama bin Laden was dead.

Main theme: readers defending the extent to which Obama personalized this event. ("I ordered.... I determined... At my direction.") First, from a reader who was a student of the great scholar and analyst of presidential power, Richard Neustadt:

>>Neustadt talked about Presidents making their own luck. He said Reagan could get away with using indignation to create a moment of national unity over the killing of hundreds of Marines in a barracks in Lebanon, the result of sheer carelessless and lack of imagination in security -- a true failure to protect our fighting men and women -- yet somehow it came as no surprise that the hapless Jimmy Carter could not get those helicopters safely across a desert to rescue the hostages in Iran -- just as the hapless Geo W Bush could not catch OBL.

I suspect Neustadt would say all those first person references in Obama's speech were fully justified, but also important. The operation didn't happen on auto pilot without presidential involvement. And just as important, the president himself took a huge risk -- for his presidency and the country. What if things had gone spectacularly, flashily wrong? Where would Obama and America stand today?

This seems to me a textbook case of a president carefully considering his power stakes, along with operational details and right and wrong -- and perhaps making, or at least benefiting from, his own luck. I imagine Neustadt would admire Obama greatly this morning.<<

And to the same effect, from a reader in California:

>>I think the criticism of the tone of President Obama's speech is a little off mark. Reports of one helicopter going down during the operation reminds me of how two helicopters went down (with great loss of life and mission failure) in the attempted rescue of the US hostages in Iran. President Carter paid hell for that--it was a tragic failure, and it's certain that Obama would have paid hell for a failed operation. He authorized the riskier route; a lot could have gone wrong, but he chose to send in a team rather than to bomb the compound, and it sounds like the team retrieved intel as a result.

While of course the credit for carrying out the operation goes to the intel planners and the soldiers on the ground (which truly sounds incredible), Obama took a risk and made decisions that I believe entitles him to throw a few "I"s in his speech. and in the long term, Obama not only was involved and signed off on this mission, but carried out a campaign promise to lessen the emphasis on Iraq and raise it on Afghanistan and Pakistan (I remember Sen. McCain complaining about Obama's threat to go into Pakistan, even if there was actionable intelligence). The President deserves credit for that; he not only carried forth the actions that President Bush began, but he redirected the emphasis to where Bin Laden was.<<

After the jump, a reader who objected to the "I directed..." tone.

From a reader in the Midwest:
>>Two things in an otherwise sound and dignified statement struck discordant notes with me. One was something you noted, an example of Obama's tendency to speak in the first person about things that a President should discuss primarily in the third person. He seemed at pains to emphasize that he had said all along that he would strike into Pakistan if necessary, and was up to his elbows in every aspect of the operation just undertaken. He came off sounding, to me, like a candidate who happened to be President, trying to ensure that the spotlight didn't drift away from him.

The other was something you praised in Obama's statement, about which I thought less highly: his appeal for a return of the national unity we experienced after 9/11. This made me cringe, frankly. It sounded as if he were wishing for everyone to calm down, be nicer to one another, discuss public issues calmly and on his terms -- as if, in other words, Americans were not divided over important issues in significant ways, and were only at odds because of evil humors abroad in the atmosphere somehow. Unity like that we purchased at the price of a national disaster on 9/11 struck me as a strange thing for a President to wish for.<<
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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