Why Obama Won't Listen to Leon Panetta

The latest tell-all book channels weak-leadership concerns inside Obama's own party.

A senator. A House member. A former presidential campaign manager. An adviser to President Obama. All Democrats, these officials have made it a habit to call or email me almost every week of Obama's second term to share their concerns about the course of his presidency.

They ask only that I don't identify them. Some fear retribution; others don't want to compromise their financial or political standing inside their party. These Democrats speak admirably about the president's intellect, integrity, and intentions, but they question his leadership—an admittedly squishy term that can be unfairly deployed against people with the guts to lead. But their critiques are specific, consistent and credible—and they comport with what many other Democrats are telling other journalists, almost always, privately.

Leon Panetta speaks for them now. It's uncanny how the former CIA/Pentagon chief's memoir and book-tour interviews channel the frustrations of Democrats who want the president to succeed but consider him a near-failure, who raised their concerns directly with the president or with his team, and were told to stop their worrying.

Actually, the White House calls it "bed-wetting." Team Obama is dismissive of anybody who dares to say the emperor may need some clothes. Mocked and/or ignored by the White House, these Democrats send messages through journalists.

Not Panetta. He wrote a book.

Obama is disengaged. While describing how little Obama fought to stop deep automatic budget cuts that rattled the Pentagon, Panetta wrote: "Indeed, that episode highlighted what I regard as his most conspicuous weakness, a frustrating reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause."

"That is not a failing of ideas or of intellect," Panetta added. "He does, however, sometimes lack fire. Too often, in my view, the president relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader."

Obama "gets so discouraged by the process" that he almost abandons the fight, Panetta told USA Today. "He's going to have to jump in the ring and fight it out for the next two years," he said. Fighting ISIS is an opportunity for a president who has "lost his way" to "repair the damage."

Obama vacillates, particularly when it comes to exerted American influence. "He was concerned about the frustration and exhaustion of the country having fought two wars," Panetta told The New York Times. The president, Panetta said, nursed "the hope that perhaps others in the world could step up to the plate and take on these issues." As a result, he added, "there was a kind of a mixed message that went out with regard to the role of the United States."

On Syria, Obama famously drew a "red line" and then failed to act when it was crossed in 2013. "President Obama vacillated," Panetta wrote, "first indicating that he was prepared to order some strikes, then retreating and agreeing to submit the matter to Congress."

Obama shifts blame. While Obama points the finger at former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki for the vacuum created by the withdrawal of U.S. troops, Panetta confirms that the president never had his heart in efforts to negotiate a deal to maintain a U.S. presence. That "created a vacuum in terms of the ability of that country to better protect itself, and it's out of that vacuum that ISIS began to breed."

Obama is too insular. One of the more accomplished public servants of his generation, Panetta bristled at White House attempts to centralize decision-making and control his contacts with lawmakers and journalists. "In fact, several times when I reached out to Congress or the press without prior White House approval," he wrote, "I was chastised for it."

I agree with Washington Post columnist Dan Balz who considers the book a public service, rather than an act of disloyalty.

Panetta comes to this memoir with a perspective that is almost unmatched in public life. He was born in California, the son of Italian immigrants, and began his public service as an aide to Republican Sen. Thomas Kuchel of California during Lyndon Johnson's administration. He later worked as an assistant to Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Robert Finch in the Nixon administration.

He became a Democrat in the early 1970s and was elected to the House from California in 1976. He rose through the ranks to become chairman of the House Budget Committee. He then served as director of the Office of Management and Budget during the first two years of Bill Clinton's presidency and was elevated to chief of staff in 1994 to bring order to the chaotic Clinton White House. He left government at the beginning of Clinton's second term.

Obama recruited him to run the Central Intelligence Agency at the start of his presidency. It was in that role that Panetta recommended and oversaw the mission that killed Osama bin Laden, which Obama approved over the initial objection of then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates. When Gates left the Pentagon, Obama moved Panetta into that position.

Anyone who knows Panetta cannot be surprised that he has written a candid and incisive memoir. He has called things the way he's seen them in Washington for decades, combining wit, laughter and a zeal for political rough-and-tumble with the tough-mindedness of someone who came to get things done.

In a column called, "Will the president listen to Leon Panetta?" Balz also urged the president and his team to "take to heart the critique from someone who has served both this president and the country loyally for many years." I can't imagine they will. Nor do most Democrats in this town have much hope for an outbreak of humility at the White House.

It starts with the president—this inability to accept criticism and learn from it—and so Obama seems destined to leave office no more comfortable or competent with the vague arts of leadership than he was six years ago.