Is Obama Leading or Being Led?

One explanation for why Americans support the president's policies on ISIS but not the president.

Consider this paradox: Americans overwhelmingly support President Obama's actions against the Islamic State so far—airstrikes and humanitarian assistance without ground troops—and yet they disapprove of Obama's handling of the ISIS crisis. Why the split mind?

The White House and its liberal media echo chamber says it has nothing to do with the president's job performance, which they find virtually flawless. Spokesman Dan Pfeiffer played the victim card: "The people who try to beat us up over these things will continue to do so." The Huffington Post blamed the American people; we're too stupid to know what's good for us.

Not everyone follows foreign policy all that closely: Nearly a third of Americans think the U.S. has bombed Syria recently, and nearly a quarter were willing to opine on nonexistent legislation addressing Ukraine. In the absence of extensive knowledge of U.S. military actions, many end up relying on other cues, like partisanship—in the most recent CNN/ORC poll, Democrats were nearly six times more likely than Republicans to say Obama was doing a good job handling ISIS.

In defense of my fellow Americans, I have a different theory. It goes to the reason that just 37 percent of the public approve of Obama's handling of the ISIS crisis, according to a new CNN/ORC poll, and only 43 percent consider him a "strong leader" in a new ABC News/Washington Post poll.

  • He doesn't seem to be taking the threat seriously enough.
  • His assurances are habitually wrong.
  • He stubbornly clings to his views.

For a sense of how much harm Obama has done to his image as commander in chief, read Peter Baker's analysis in The New York Times on Tuesday. He makes a powerful, if not unique, argument that Obama's assessment of the world is at odds with hard reality.

When President Obama addresses the nation on Wednesday to explain his plan to defeat Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria, it is a fair bet he will not call them the "JV team."

Nor does he seem likely to describe Iraq as "sovereign, stable, and self-reliant" with a "representative government." And presumably he will not assert after more than a decade of conflict that "the tide of war is receding."

Those are Obama's past assurance, all proven wrong well after he abandoned them. There's more.

"We don't have a strategy yet."

"The truth of the matter is that the world has always been messy. In part, we're just noticing now because of social media "¦ "

"We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized."

"I didn't set a red line. The world set a red line."

"Don't do stupid stuff."

With each tone-deaf assertion, not to mention the jarring disconnect of playing golf after announcing the beheading of an American journalist, Obama has squandered the public's faith. It's one thing to support the policies. It's another to support the man.

"Obama does himself no favors with his periodic slumbers, his indisciplines of conception and rhetoric. He and his aides take too much comfort in their sense of being misunderstood and stymied," writes The New Yorker's David Remnick, an Obama supporter.

After a summer of such disconnect, the people are speaking. A majority of Americans think Obama is too cautious, and 60 percent consider ISIS a serious threat to U.S. interests. They're saying: This ain't no JV, get off the golf course, get a strategy and keep us safe.

The good news for Obama is that his hawk-and-dove policies match the public's mood. His record suggests that he has no qualms about taking risks to fight terrorism. The question is whether Obama is leading the American public, or whether the public is leading him.