Unexceptional Leadership

The buck stops with Obama and Boehner, except when it doesn't.

"That's how we roll." With four words in a 60 Minutes interview Sunday, President Obama punctuated a forceful expression of American exceptionalism—a belief that the United States is qualitatively different from other nations.

"America leads. We are the indispensable nation. We have capacity no one else has. Our military is the best in the history of the world. And when trouble comes up anywhere in the world, they don't call Beijing. They don't call Moscow. They call us. That's the deal.

CBS's Steve Kroft had just questioned the legitimacy of the coalition Obama is assembling against the Islamic State. "I mean," Kroft says, "it looks like we are doing 90 percent."

Steve ... when there's a typhoon in the Philippines, take a look at who's helping the Philippines deal with that situation. When there's an earthquake in Haiti, take a look at who's leading the charge and making sure Haiti can rebuild. That's how we roll. And that's what makes this America.

Technically, "American exceptionalism" doesn't necessarily suggest superiority, but in political debates the phrase carries a strong inference of American greatness—particularly among conservatives who recall Ronald Reagan comparing the United States to a "shining city upon a hill." A nagging GOP talking point is that Obama doesn't believe in American exceptionalism, which has become code for questioning the president's pride of country—even his patriotism. That's hogwash.

There are far more honest reasons for criticism of Obama, including one illuminated by the same 60 Minutes interview: the president's maddening habit of shifting blame. This is more than a tic; it's a personality flaw and a political problem, because Americans want their leaders to be accountable and credible. Obama could summon neither attribute when Kroft asked whether he was surprised by the ISIS surge.

"Well I think, our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria," Obama said.

Sorry, Mr. President. Jim Clapper is the director of national intelligence, not the commander in chief. It's the DNI's job to present the president with the best available intelligence, which is rarely certain; it's almost always a mix of hard evidence and educated guesses. It's the president's job to analyze the facts, assess the advice, and act.

Clapper didn't assure the world that ISIS was just a "JV team"—its threats exaggerated by social media. That was Obama.

Clapper has acknowledged that the United States overestimated the ability and will of the Iraqi army to fight ISIS. "That's true," Obama said. Kroft pressed: "And these are the people that we're now expecting to carry on the fight?" Obama replied:

Well, here's what happened in Iraq. When we left, we had left them a democracy that was intact, a military that was well equipped, and the ability then to chart their own course. And that opportunity was squandered over the course of five years or so because the prime minister, Maliki, was much more interested in consolidating his Shiite base and very suspicious of the Sunnis and the Kurds, who make up the other two-thirds of the country. So what you did not see was a government that had built a sense of national unity. And if you don't have ...

You see what he did? It's the same trick that Obama plays with domestic politics. First, he points to an inarguable flaw in his opponent. Maliki was divisive sounds a lot like the Republicans are divisive.

Second, he ignores whatever role he played in creating a problem. In the case of Iraq, fair-minded critics across the political spectrum wonder whether ISIS would have mushroomed had Obama heeded the advice of his Cabinet to keep modest levels of U.S. troops in Iraq. Obama claims that Maliki wouldn't let him, which makes him sound like a child making excuses for not doing homework.

Speaking of childish ways, Congress needs to grow up. The refusal of GOP and Democratic lawmakers to debate and vote on Obama's war plans is a spineless abdication of responsibility. On ABC's This Week, House Speaker John Boehner said that while he believes Obama has the authority to act alone, he would call lawmakers back to Washington from vacation if the president asked him to.

"I'd bring the Congress back," the Ohio Republican said. Talk about leading from behind. Americans don't expect their leaders to be perfect, or even exceptional, but they know where the buck is supposed to stop.