Obama: Decider or Ditherer?

The president made tough calls in his first term but has delayed in his second. Will he find his footing before November?

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 28: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill on January 28, 2014 in Washington, DC. In his fifth State of the Union address, Obama is expected to emphasize on healthcare, economic fairness and new initiatives designed to stimulate the U.S. economy with bipartisan cooperation.  (Getty Images)

President Bush in 2006 defiantly proclaimed, "I'm the decider, and I decide what is best." The remark brought Bush much criticism, but it accurately captured a decision-making style that Ari Fleischer, his longtime press secretary, this week described as "instinctive." Bush was never accused of studying an issue to death and rarely was found sidestepping a decision.

Today, the same cannot be said of Barack Obama.

The comparison comes to mind in a week when Obama, at a continental summit in Toluca, Mexico, had to face a Canadian prime minister exasperated that the U.S. president already has taken four years to consider the Keystone XL pipeline, with no decision in sight. As Republicans mock his dithering at every opportunity, the controversy puts a new focus on the way Obama makes decisions, or doesn't.

In the first term, Obama made tough, often unpopular, decisions to deal with the economic crisis that greeted him. Regulating Wall Street, supporting domestic auto production, and shoring up banks were not easy decisions. At the same time, he was raising troop numbers in Afghanistan and lowering them in Iraq, again with abundant controversy. Obama's first-term high point was in 2011 when he made what even his critics acknowledge was a tough call, green-lighting a raid into Pakistan in the hope of capturing or killing Osama bin Laden despite contrary advice from some of his top people and less than conclusive intelligence.

In those cases, Obama was, indeed, the decider, although he would never use that term. Bush once told author Bob Woodward: "I'm not a textbook player. I'm a gut player." By that metric, the current president could be called a textbook player. In a 2009 interview with journalist Kenneth T. Walsh, Obama, who believes that Bush's "gut" drew the country into a war in Iraq that was unwise, talked in depth about the process he likes to follow when deciding. He seemed to go out of his way to draw a contrast with Bush. "You've got to make decisions based on information and not emotions," he said then. To that end, he told 60 Minutes: "I spend a lot of time reading. People keep on asking me, 'Well, what are you reading these days?' Well, mostly briefing books."

How a president makes decisions is perhaps the most important thing for voters to know before electing someone to the office. No chief executive ever brings the perfect mix of analysis, history, curiosity, instinct, and experience to the task. And each, as Obama noted, spends most of his day making decisions. Asked by 60 Minutes how many he has to make in a day, the president responded quickly, "Can't count them." It is also true, as Obama has said repeatedly, easy decisions rarely reach a president. "If they were easy decisions, somebody down the food chain's already made them."

Which is why it is mystifying that Obama has placed himself on the defensive on both Keystone and trade. On life-and-death issues, such as bin Laden and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he has been decisive. On Syria, he was willing to buck the advice of most of his senior military advisers in refusing to arm the rebels seeking to topple the Bashar al-Assad regime. Many thought he was wrong, but he was decisive, determined to keep the United States out of another Middle East conflict. (That, of course, turned muddy when he was forced to react to Syria's use of chemical weapons after he had said such action would cross a red line and trigger a response. At that point, jabbed Fleischer, Obama signaled, "I'm not the decider; Congress is the decider.")

But the decisiveness that characterized his bin Laden actions and much of his foreign policy diminishes in domestic situations when elements of the Democratic base are at odds. Keystone is a classic example. Pushing for it are labor unions, with eyes on the jobs the pipeline would bring. Against it are environmentalists, who say the pipeline would worsen global warming.

On trade, the president has to choose between a business community that sees expanding global markets and rank-and-file Democratic progressives who see trade pacts as a threat to domestic jobs. The White House would tell you that Obama has made his decision on this one, supporting the passage of Trade Promotion Authority that is essential if he is to conclude negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership pacts. But his actions argue otherwise. He made only passing and tepid mention of trade in his State of the Union address. And he has done little to counter the impression that Vice President Joe Biden left with congressional Democrats last week when he said it is OK with the White House if they do nothing on trade before the election.

All presidents go through stretches like this. Republicans who long for the days of "the decider" forget that when Bush made his "decider" statement, it was in defense of what turned out to be a bad decision. In what was known as the "revolt of the generals," the military was demanding that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld go. But Bush stubbornly rejected their advice. It was only months later, after Republicans took a drubbing in the midterm elections, that he acknowledged Rumsfeld was a drag on his administration and accepted his resignation.

The famous "gut" had failed Bush and hurt his party in the midterms. Today, eight years later, Obama has a chance to show his style of decision-making will not fail him. His party, facing new midterm elections, is waiting.