Second, presidential actions have ripples beyond ripples. Obama may have lucked — or his secretary of state accidentally may have stumbled — into an approach that averted the Perils of Pauline moment. But the indecision, the mind-changing, the lurching — and, note, Obama did not dispute such characterizations so much as dismiss them — have consequences.
“Style,” as the president would have it, matters. Adversaries and allies, foreign and domestic, take a measure of the president’s steel. They judge whether he can be trusted, whether he will back down, whether he has what it takes to lead the country and the world. I have not encountered a single person outside the White House in the last few weeks, Republican or Democrat, who has kind words for Obama’s performance. Scornful may not be too strong a word for the consensus view, though it is scorned leavened, at least among the more thoughtful critics, with appreciation for the no-good-options reality of Syria.
This attitude is especially important because it arrives at such a dangerous moment for the country, with looming deadlines on government funding and the debt ceiling, and because it is amplified by presidential mishandling of other matters.
Obama’s dawdling and eventual capitulation on Larry Summers, his reported first choice for chairman of the Federal Reserve, further reinforce the perception of the president as weak and indecisive. Given the other matters on the presidential agenda, it may not have made sense to launch a fight, this one with his supposed allies, over Summers. But once again, Obama made the situation worse by allowing it to fester for so long, and for the opposition to Summers to build.
So Obama enters yet another treacherous period in a weakened state, with his political allies distrustful and his political opponents caught up in their own dysfunctionality. Machiavelli advised that it is better to be feared than loved; at the moment, in Congress, Obama is neither.