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Obama walks the fine line

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David Broder
June 27, 2010
— Two departures from the Obama administration go a long way toward illuminating what is important—and what is not—in determining its political fate.

The firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal and the resignation of budget director Peter Orszag represent the most significant fraying in the top levels of the government since Barack Obama took office 17 months ago.


Obviously, they are not similar. McChrystal was canned after being called back from Kabul and given a brief hearing at the White House because he and his aides had been monumentally indiscreet in discussing, in the presence of a reporter, their views on the shortcomings of the president and his national security team.


Of his own volition, Orszag announced his pending retirement as director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. He wasn’t pushed; he jumped, looking for shorter hours and a bigger paycheck.


When I say these departures show us what is really important in the judgments about Obama that will be forthcoming—first in the midterm elections in November and then in 2012—this is what I mean:


As forecast by his campaign, Obama has staked almost everything in his reputation as commander in chief on the conduct of the war in Afghanistan. He staged a long and heavily publicized review of the war strategy, concluded it by adding 30,000 more U.S. troops to the struggle, set a mid-2011 deadline for beginning a withdrawal, and picked McChrystal as the commander to carry out the task.


That choice—recommended by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who fired McChrystal’s predecessor—has backfired, but the president insists the change of command does not signal a change of strategy. His fingerprints are still indelibly on the war.


Instead, he has turned back to Gen. David Petraeus, the hero of President George W. Bush’s Iraq surge—which was opposed by Obama—and handed him the mess that is Afghanistan.


At some point in the future, a nuclear Iran may pose an even greater challenge for Obama. But for now, and likely in 2012, he will be rated on national security by what happens in Afghanistan.


Why is Orszag’s departure equally significant? Because he has been at the intersection of three domestic concerns as important in their way as Afghanistan is in its realm: health care, the budget and the economy.


The OMB director provided much of the intellectual firepower behind Obama’s approach to health care legislation. He shaped the budgets that have become increasingly the center of debate between Democrats and Republicans. And he has been a central voice on overall economic policy.


Those topics loom large on the agenda for the next two elections. On all of them, Obama is walking a fine line. He has tried to finesse some of the issues in health care by phasing in his proposals and by avoiding the direct approach of a “public option” or expanded Medicare. Similarly, on the budget and economy, he has called for stimulus measures but also promised spending restraint and ultimate fiscal discipline. In Afghanistan, too, he is trying to have it both ways, sending in more troops but still standing by his vow to begin a withdrawal.


All of these measures—and the men behind them—are controversial. And over all of them looms the issue of Obama’s leadership. As the latest Pew Research Center poll confirms, none of the president’s actions so far at home or abroad have damaged his overall approval numbers—which remain just below 50 percent.


What has changed dramatically is the perception of him as a leader. The number describing him as a strong leader has dropped from 77 percent in February 2009 to 53 percent in the latest Pew poll—perhaps in part because of the futility of the federal response to the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster.


Firing McChrystal was a strong action, but it will benefit the president only if Petraeus has one more miracle in his pocket. What a gamble.


David Broder is a columnist for The Washington Post. Readers may write to him via e-mail at davidbroder@washpost.com.

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