In his memoir, Leon Panetta argued that for all of Barack Obama’s strengths, he is missing an essential ingredient of leadership. He lacks “fire,” wrote Obama’s former CIA director and Pentagon chief. “The president relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.”
Obama has proved Panetta right again and again during his presidency, but never more dangerously so than with his shoulder-shrug approach to ISIS. Obama called it a “J.V. team” before it started beheading Americans. He said it was "contained" before it attacked Paris. Now he’s calling it “a bunch of killers with good social media.”
That’s how you describe a street gang—a bunch of killers with good social media. The Islamic State is no street gang.
Objective observers from across the political spectrum took exception to Obama’s tone. This from Frank Bruni, a liberal-minded New York Times columnist:
He was at his worst just after the Paris attacks, when he communicated as much irritation with the second-guessing of his stewardship as he did outrage over Paris and determination to destroy the Islamic State, or ISIS.
He owed us something different, something more. He’d just said, the day before Paris, that ISIS was contained and that it was weakening, so there was an onus on him to make abundantly clear that he grasped the magnitude of the threat and was intensely focused on it.
From Obama we needed fire. Instead we got embers, along with the un-presidential portrayal of Republicans as sniveling wimps whose fears about refugees were akin to their complaints about tough debate questions.
There it is again—“from Obama we needed fire.”
The man who so aptly diagnosed Obama’s tonal weakness, Leon Panetta, appeared on Meet the Press on Sunday to demand more leadership against ISIS. This time, he stuck to substance—and was no less devastating.
"I think the U.S. has to lead in this effort because what we've learned a long time ago is that if the United States does not lead, nobody else will," Panetta said. He blamed Obama for under-serving his promise to disrupt and defeat ISIS. "I think that the resources applied to that mission, frankly, have not been sufficient to confront that."
Panetta is not alone among Democrats worried about Obama’s approach. Leading Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein told Face the Nation that the United States is not doing enough to fight the Islamic State.
"We need to be aggressive,” she said. “Now.”
Personally, I’m no hawk. I’m not convinced the United States needs more ground troops in the Middle East, certainly not without a radical rethinking of how the war against ISIS would require shared sacrifice. I am sympathetic to the fact that Obama faces no easy options after inheriting President Bush’s ill-conceived war in Iraq. And I’ve got absolutely no patience for the GOP presidential field’s hyperbolic, dishonest, and bigoted rhetoric.
But there is only one commander-in-chief, and ours is stubbornly clinging to a strategy against ISIS that lacks clarity, creativity, and urgency. There is only one president, and ours doesn’t seem to know how to rally us to a common cause.
Look at this Twitter feed from Ron Klain, a leading Democratic consultant who served as Obama’s Ebola czar. He recalls the irrational, politically charged calls to close U.S. borders to people from nations stricken by the disease—a panic not unlike the one over Syrian refugees today. “Ebola experience offers three lessons for managing fears,” Klain writes.
1. Acknowledge and address the public’s fear. Don’t dismiss it as illegitimate. “That only exacerbates fears and fuels doubts about leaders’ candor.”
2. Explain the dangers of “giving into fears.” Inaction is riskier than action.
3. “Show that government has a plan to manage the risk—not ignoring the risk, but taking active, serious steps to reduce it.”
Klain didn’t say this but I will: On ISIS, Obama breaks every rule. He minimizes the threat and dismisses our fears, which raises doubts about his candor and capability. An overwhelming majority of Americans disapprove of his handling of ISIS, a new poll shows, and 81 percent think ISIS will strike the United States.
In July 2013, six months into his second term, I wrote a column that questioned whether Obama would fulfill his enormous potential, whether he even cared anymore about his promises to change Washington, whether he could write the modern rules of the presidency and build a new bully pulpit. I asked, “What if Obama can’t lead?”
I now have my answer.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.