Obama's Hidden Hand

Obama Eisenhower - banner.jpg
Obama credit: Jason Reed/Reuters. Eisenhower credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 2008, many of Barack Obama's supporters thought they might be electing another John F. Kennedy. But his recent maneuvers increasingly suggest that they selected another Dwight Eisenhower.

That's not a comment on President Obama's effectiveness or ideology, but rather on his conception of presidential leadership. Whether he is confronting the turmoil reshaping the Middle East or the escalating budget wars in Washington, Obama most often uses a common set of strategies to pursue his goals. Those strategies have less in common with Kennedy's inspirational, public-oriented leadership than with the muted, indirect, and targeted Eisenhower model that political scientist Fred Greenstein memorably described as a "hidden hand" presidency.

This approach has allowed Obama to achieve many of his domestic and international aims--from passing the health reform legislation that marked its stormy first anniversary this week to encouraging Egypt's peaceful transfer of power. But, like it did for Eisenhower, this style has exposed Obama to charges of passivity, indecisiveness, and leading from behind. The pattern has left even some of his supporters uncertain whether he is shrewd--or timid.

On most issues, Obama has consciously chosen not to make himself the fulcrum. He has identified broad goals but has generally allowed others to take the public lead, waited until the debate has substantially coalesced, and only then announced a clear, visible stand meant to solidify consensus. He appears to believe he can most often exert maximum leverage toward the end of any process--an implicit rejection of the belief that a president's greatest asset is his ability to define the choices for the country (and the world).

To the extent that Obama shapes processes along the way, he tends to do so offstage rather than in public. Throughout, he has shown an unswerving resistance to absolutist public pronouncements and grand theories. "The modus operandi is quiet, behind-the-scenes consensus-building, rather than out-front, bold leadership," said Ken Duberstein, a former chief of staff for Ronald Reagan.

All of these instincts are apparent in Obama's response to the Middle East tumult. He has approached each uprising as a blank slate that demands new assessments and recalibrated policies: Even in the deserts of the Middle East, he resists drawing lines in the sand. Bahrain, an ally, receives quiet exhortation. In Libya, Obama speaks with cruise missiles. "Each of these cases presents a different set of circumstances," a senior national-security official insists. "The distinction between this and the previous administration is, we're not trying to sweep this all into one grand, oversimplified theory ... without understanding the context."

A common thread throughout Obama's responses has been his belief that the U.S. image across the region is so toxic that it could undermine the change it seeks by embracing it too closely. "We can't have this be our agenda," the senior official says. In Egypt, Obama deferred to local protesters; in Libya, he allowed France and England to drive the international debate toward military intervention--and only publicly joined them once the Arab League had signed on.

By stepping back, Obama has effectively denied the region's autocrats the opportunity to discredit indigenous demands for change as a U.S. plot. But this strategy has led to delay, mixed messages, and his unilateral renunciation of the weapon of ringing rhetorical inspiration: There's been no Kennedyesque "Ich bin ein Berliner" moment for Obama.

The president has shown similar instincts on domestic issues, especially since Republicans captured the House. On health care reform last year, he prodded the process but mostly let Democratic congressional leaders direct the internal party negotiations. Today, Obama has remained aloof from a bipartisan Senate group laboring to convert the recommendations of his deficit-reduction commission into legislation. Many around that group (including commission Cochairmen Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles) believe that the president may still endorse the effort, but only if it first garners broad bipartisan support.

Obama's case for delaying intervention into the deficit discussion parallels the administration's logic about the Middle East strategy: Because the domestic debate is so polarized, Republicans might feel compelled to oppose the Simpson-Bowles plan if Obama preemptively adopted it. By reducing his profile upfront, he can broaden his coalition in the end.

That logic is probably right but hardly cost-free. This week, a large bipartisan Senate group warned the president that no deficit agreement may get far enough for him to bless unless he moves more aggressively to build public support for action. Even if a plan emerges, by delaying his involvement, Obama risks being forced to choose among options largely defined by others.

In foreign policy as well, the most pointed criticism of Obama's style is that it leaves him reacting to events rather than shaping them--and, frequently, reacting only after costly hesitation. The president's approach carries another big cost: His desire to maintain flexibility for private deal-making often dulls his ability to mobilize popular support by drawing clear contrasts. (See: health care.)

Yet at home and abroad, Obama consistently achieves many of his goals. (See: again, health care.) Can a "hidden hand" presidency thrive in the 24/7 information maelstrom? Obama is testing the proposition.

This article appeared in the Saturday, March 26, 2011 edition of National Journal.