WASHINGTON, D.C. — Two instincts — one predictable, the other surprising — help explain the arc of Barack Obama’s presidency. The predictable instinct is Obama’s tendency to overlearn the lessons of history. The second, more surprising but related to the first, is Obama’s frequent audacity deficit.
Every capable leader learns from history. But key moments of the Obama presidency demonstrate that he has erred in precisely the opposite direction, by being overly reluctant to repeat the mistakes of his predecessors.
On the domestic front, the signal episode in this regard involves his hands-off shepherding of the health care debate through Congress. The (correct) lesson of the Clinton administration was that foisting a top-down behemoth on a balky Congress was a recipe for legislative disaster.
But Obama was so determined not to replay the mistakes of Hillary Clinton et al. that he overcompensated by being unduly aloof from the legislative debate.
For precious months, the administration held back in hopes of allowing Democrat Max Baucus of Montana and Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa to reach a bipartisan deal. The administration was notably reluctant to make clear where it stood on key issues. The discussions dragged on to predictable inconclusion; then Sen. Ted Kennedy’s death and the election of Republican Scott Brown threatened the Democrat’s filibuster-proof majority. The entire enterprise nearly collapsed.
On foreign policy, the signal episode of Obama’s overlearning the lessons of history is ... pretty much the entirety of his foreign policy. It has been a reaction, understandable enough, to the adventurism of George W. Bush, primarily the ill-advised, ill-fated venture in Iraq.
Bush promised humility yet overreached; Obama vowed realism and yet underplayed America’s essential hand in world affairs. Hence the administration’s reluctance to intervene in Libya, the costly dilly-dallying over whether and how to help the rebels in Syria, the failure to push hard enough for a status-of-forces agreement that would have allowed U.S. troops to remain in Iraq.