Obama Says He’s Not Worried About Style—but He Should Be

Staying aloof to appearances could endanger both Democratic chances in 2014 and the president's legacy.
Jason Reed/Reuters

When President Obama told ABC News he was "less concerned about style points" than "getting the policy right," he was trying to hasten into oblivion a foreign-policy week from hell. But it's a risky business to disregard style.

From his Syria gyrations to Monday's ill-timed economic speech attacking Republicans as a mass shooting was in progress at the nearby Washington Navy Yard, Obama's apparently willful dismissal of style could do more than just hurt his poll numbers. It could yield midterm election losses and create perhaps insurmountable obstacles to achieving his policy goals.

The Syria moves were head-spinning, from beginning (Obama's stunning decision to ask Congress to authorize a military strike) to end (Russia convening negotiations on Syria's chemical weapons). What with Congress poised to reject Obama's request and Vladimir Putin's twin tours de force – coming up with a viable diplomatic path and landing an annoying op-ed in The New York Times – the commander-in-chief has appeared to be in a less than commanding position.

Ronald Reagan biographer Lou Cannon calls Obama's performance on Syria "appalling." Presidential historian Robert Dallek says he's coming across as "indecisive, almost Hamlet-like." Among the descriptions tweeted by Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, were unsteady, undisciplined, poorly executed, and "serial U.S. ineptitude."

Obama has a high-profile chance to step up and counter all that with strong, organized, consistent leadership in the budget and debt battles of the next few weeks. But he seized that opportunity prematurely -- deciding to go ahead and give his speech on Monday, the five-year anniversary of the financial crisis, despite the shooting incident.

In prefatory remarks, acknowledging the unfolding Navy Yard tragedy, Obama said: "We're going to be investigating thoroughly what happened, as we do so many of these shootings, sadly, that have happened, and do everything that we can to try to prevent them." Yet the incident itself was a reminder that he has been unable to win a single new gun restriction -- not even an expansion of gun-buyer background checks, supported by 80 to 90 percent in polls -- in the wake of last year's horrific school shooting in Newtown.

In some ways Obama's fifth year is typical of fifth years, when reelected presidents aim high and often fail. But in some ways it is atypical, notably in the number of failures, setbacks, and incompletes Obama has piled up. Gun control and immigration reform are stalled. Two Obama favorites withdrew their names as potential nominees in the face of congressional opposition -- Susan Rice, once a frontrunner for secretary of state, followed by Larry Summers, a top candidate to head the Federal Reserve. Secretary of State John Kerry's possibly offhand remark about Assad giving up his chemical weapons, and Putin's jump into the arena with a diplomatic proposal, saved him from almost certain defeat on Capitol Hill. Edward Snowden set the national-security establishment on its heels, then won temporary refuge from … Putin. It's far from clear how that will be resolved.

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Jill Lawrence is a national correspondent at National Journal. She was previously a columnist at Politics Daily, national political correspondent at USA Today and national political writer at the Associated Press.

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