The Limits Of Character

ObamaByHiroko MasuikeGetty

by Patrick Appel

Glenn Greenwald's post earlier this week about the persona of the President and that his fans, and the Dish posts surrounding it, attacked or defended Obama's character without entirely challenging the premise of the debate. Profiles of managed personalities –actors, athletes, politicians – are often of little worth because that Person Of Note is actively crafting a branded identity. They are working against the intent of the profile. No persona is more managed than that of the President.

I don't doubt that Obama is a good person, I'm likewise told by those who have met George W. Bush that he is quite charming, but this focus on the individual, and the mettle of his conscience, misses what is the more important and observable part of a presidency: management style. When debating an executive decision like the escalation in Afghanistan or the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to a US prison, we write that "Obama should do this..." or "Obama shouldn't have done that..." when what we often mean is the executive branch as lead by Obama should or shouldn't have taken a given action. By focusing on the President, we ignore the system surrounding him.

There are symbolic moments where Obama can act unilaterally, but major actions rely on the consultation of experts, the collection of information, and weeks of debate at lower levels of the executive. This system has been constructed by Obama, his advisers, previous occupants of the White House, and Congress. It's not as sexy or as emotionally charged as defending or attacking the character of the President. But thinking of the executive as a bundle of conflicting personalities and incentives funneled through the authority of one man is truer to reality than pretending the President is sitting in a room with a red phone and barking out orders based solely upon the swinging needle of his internal compass.

The Obama executive can be summed up in three words: no sudden moves. Like Greenwald and Andrew, I've been disappointed by parts of the Obama executive's civil liberties record. I regain a smidgen of hope on this issue, and gay rights, and foreign policy, and numerous other topics, not because I trust in the character of the President. I have never met or spoken with the man. Thousands of people have spent endless hours trying to influence my feelings about Obama the person. I discount it all.

What I see from watching the Obama administration is a meticulous consideration of multiple options and a resistance, if not immunity, to the demand that the President act swiftly in all instances. The degree of change in this regard from the last administration cannot be overstated.  And though the Obama management system has not always produced results I agree with, wide-reading and my gut tell me to cut losses in Afghanistan, Obama's method of deliberation at least suggests that he has a larger strategy, what Sullivan has called the long game. I concede that the demonstration of failure may well be the fall back strategy in Afghanistan. I also concede this may be false hope on my and Sullivan's part.

I will be unsurprised if I am disappointed, but I'm more confident that Obama's executive will change course when confronted with failure than I ever was that the Bush executive would do so, which isn't saying much.

(Image:Hiroko Masuike/Getty Images)