Obama is doing what he does: the grubby political stuff


by Ken Feltman

Pundits of all sizes, shapes and pre-conceived opinions are shifting into high gear to analyze President Obama and his handling of the Syrian chemical weapons mess. Prevailing world punditry holds that President Putin of Russia out-foxed Obama. Many Washington pundits do not agree.

They seem to want us to believe that Obama worked out a grand diplomatic and strategic plan and got Putin to take the bait. Nope! Obama was grasping for a lifeline. Putin came along and seized on a chance comment by Obama’s secretary of state to turn the Syrian tragedy into his own personal political triumph, making Obama look overmatched in the process.

Obama stuck his head up when he tried to move the red line he had drawn (but said he had not). Putin clobbered him.

A Washington foreign affairs reporter asked what I thought. Here’s the transcript:

Reporter: How did this happen? Didn’t the President and his advisors see what might happen?

Feltman: Did you?

Reporter: I just report.

Feltman: And President Obama is just a politician. He’s not a statesman, not a diplomat. He said that the United States does not do pinpricks. Okay, Obama doesn’t do statesmanship. He does politics.

Reporter: What do you mean? Please explain.

Feltman: From his Harvard background he seems to have learned how to be a rather imperious lecturer. From his Chicago background he seems to have learned evasion, denial and pushiness, doing what it takes to get by and wait out the crisis. That’s pure Chicago.

His work product is not eloquent. It’s thrown-together, catch as catch can, cruddy, ugly, like a sandwich that leaks through the wrapper. His every instinct is political. The product is political and politics is messy.

Reporter: He inherited an impossible situation ….

Feltman (interrupting): I’m tired of that excuse. He ran and he won. Did he expect that on inauguration day somebody would push the reset button? It’s like the old Rock Island Railroad. The song said, “You ride it as you find it.” Passengers weren’t tricked into buying a ticket and hopping aboard. They rode it as they found it – often late, dirty and crowded.

Reporter: I still believe he found a terrible situation.

Feltman: Has he made it better? No. In fact, many people think he’s made it worse. But that’s not the point.

Too many people, especially the television talking-heads, expect too much. Don’t expect thoughtful diplomacy. Obama doesn’t do diplomacy. He does politics, plain old politics. That’s grubby, where the idea is to get any little advantage, to block the opposition, to elbow, whine and deal your way to what you want – or at least to a place where you won’t lose.

Politics is about survival. The grander stuff comes later, after your foothold is secure.

When you get one-upped, you play the blame game and change the subject and hope some break comes your way. And you know what? One did. Obama may be a big winner. That’s what he’s hoping. Someday, history may praise him for it. But it will be dumb luck. The man is not capable of grand strategies, just politics. Obama doesn’t do glorious things. He just tries to grab the glory. He’s a pol.

Reporter: That’s pretty cynical. He got a Nobel.

Feltman: It is realistic. The Nobel Prize did not make him any more that he was. Why expect more? Take what you get and move on. He’s a pol. He makes speeches about grand things and pretends to have an overarching vision. But he doesn’t. To understand Obama, understand that he has less of the “vision thing” than any president since Jimmy Carter. Look where that got us.

Reporter: You are rewriting history. We all had reasons to believe he would be a great leader. He still may.

Feltman: His election made him a transitional president. That was wonderful, exciting, historic. But it did not convey greatness. For centuries, rulers have been anointed with holy water when they take the throne. The water is supposed to bestow wisdom and grace. What kind of wisdom and grace do you pick up in Chicago?

Reporter: Okay, let’s not talk about Chicago. I know you’re from there. What did you predict, if you can remember?

Feltman: I did not predict greatness for Obama. You can look it up, as Casey Stengel would say. I wrote that he was, at heart, a Chicago pol. That’s not bad but that’s not great. It’s just everyday stuff. Nothing like the visions of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln or either Roosevelt – not even the vision of Harry Truman. You expect too much. Obama does politics, not saintly stuff.

Reporter: You really are cynical about Obama. Your last comment is full of cynicism. So what do you recommend then?

Feltman: I thought you just report. That last statement seems like a judgment. Never mind.

Keep calm and carry on.


Here is Ken Feltman’s January 2009 article, “You can take Obama out of Chicago but …”

Here is Ken Feltman’s June 2009 article, “Obama attacks from the fourth dimension.”

About Radnor Reports

Ken Feltman is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists. He is retired chairman of Radnor Inc., an international political consulting and government relations firm in Washington, D.C. Known as a coalition builder, he has participated in election campaigns and legislative efforts in the United States and several other countries.
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