"The President is an elected king," wrote Randolph Bourne nearly a century ago, "but the fact that he is elected has proved to be of far less significance ... than the fact that he is pragmatically a king."
Bourne thereby identified a central truth of modern American politics: Stripped to its essence, our democracy has become an elaborate process of conferring enormous power on a single individual. What we choose to call an inauguration is more accurately a coronation. Nominally a chief executive, the president today occupies a position more akin to that of emperor, and Americans both expect much and demand much of their emperor.
To be "the most powerful man in the world" is to be simultaneously worshiped and despised. To occupy the Oval Office is to become the modern-day equivalent of a Sun King, commanding deference, while also becoming the subject of endless gossip, envy, jealousy, and intrigue, all to be reported at length and ad nauseam by Bob Woodward.
What lends this arrangement a semblance of legitimacy is the expectation that our president-monarch knows how to wield power effectively. Through the exercise of royal prerogatives, the king demonstrates his worthiness for high office.
Should a president demonstrate an absence of mastery—if he comes across as a weakling or a ditherer—profound dysfunction results. Recall the Carter era. Jimmy Carter's inability to resolve the Iran hostage crisis reduced him to a figure of contempt and left Americans with a sense that the country itself was adrift. In short order, they stripped Carter of his crown.
Yet presidential weakness—even an inkling of weakness—can have international as well as domestic implications. This is notably the case in matters related to national security. If the occupant of the Oval Office appears less than fully in command, friend and foe alike will wonder who exactly is in charge.
Confusion about American priorities and intentions can thereby result. Out of confusion can come miscalculation, as allies revise downward their estimate of American reliability and adversaries persuade themselves that they can get away with mischief. In other words, the implications of weakness extend beyond the who’s up, who’s down preoccupations of garden-variety politics. This confusion describes where we find ourselves today. There is no doubting that President Obama is smart, talented, well intentioned, and smooth as they come. Yet whether he possesses the temperament to govern is fast becoming an open question. Put simply, the question is this: Does Obama have sufficient backbone?
The release of Bob Woodward's new book Obama’s Wars has raised this question to new heights. It depicts a president who not only gets rolled but who knows when he is getting rolled and still allows it to happen. With regard to how to proceed on Afghanistan—the most important foreign policy decision to cross Obama’s desk thus far—the president last year demanded that the Pentagon present him with distinctive policy options. The king didn’t want to be handed the solution; he wanted to choose.
In fact, however, the members of his court offered him three variations of a single course of action, the one that the Pentagon itself preferred—a textbook example of how the theory of “civilian control” differs from actual practice.
Particularly disturbing is the fact that our very smart president understood exactly what was happening. Woodward shows Obama complaining loudly. Having registered that complaint, the president more or less meekly rubber-stamped the policy that the Pentagon was foisting on him. In effect, on Afghanistan he thereby forfeited to others the power to decide. Once Obama endorsed choices made by unelected subordinates, the office of commander-in-chief had acquired additional tenants.
That was back in December 2009, of course. Here in October 2010, the Pentagon's preferred plan for Afghanistan shows little sign of succeeding anytime soon. Obama's wariness about escalating the war there—now about to enter its tenth year—looks increasingly sound, which makes his complicity in going along with that escalation all the more damning.
Yet perhaps all is not lost—at least not entirely so. The president may yet have one last chance to retrieve the situation and to reverse the impression that he is less than fully in control of his administration. The next Afghanistan "milestone" is a strategic assessment promised for this coming December, one full year after Obama announced his (or the Pentagon's) Afghan surge. The military—General David Petraeus in the vanguard—will exert itself to minimize the importance of this mid-course review. So too will members of the Petraeus Lobby, currently challenging AIPAC, the trial lawyers, the pharmaceutical industry and all the rest of the powerful interest groups vying for preeminence in Washington.
You can take it to the bank: The military backed by militarists in mufti will press for more time. They will argue for postponing any serious decisions until July 2011, intending in the mean time to chip away at the president's vaguely stated promise to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan next summer.
If Obama wishes to salvage his presidency and demonstrate his capacity to lead and to govern, he will reject that effort. He will instead seize the opportunity presented by the mid-course review.
December is the time to render a verdict on the Afghanistan war. If the Afghan surge is still not showing clear signs of success by year's end, waiting another seven months won’t make a difference.
December also presents Obama with an opportunity—perhaps his last one—to reverse the impression that he is not fully in control of his own administration. Decisive action just might enable the president to reassure Americans and the rest of the world that he is, after all, up to the job.
Should he squander this last opportunity, however, the king is likely to find himself soon thereafter seeking new employment.