COHEN’S PERSISTENT CONFUSION…. Richard Cohen’s columns are getting increasingly difficult to read, and even more difficult to understand.
Sooner or later it is going to occur to Barack Obama that he is the president of the United States. As of yet, though, he does not act that way, appearing promiscuously on television and granting interviews like the presidential candidate he no longer is. The election has been held, but the campaign goes on and on. The candidate has yet to become commander in chief.
Take last week’s Group of 20 meeting in Pittsburgh. There, the candidate-in-full commandeered the television networks and the leaders of Britain and France to give the Iranians a dramatic warning. Yet another of their secret nuclear facilities had been revealed and Obama, as anyone could see, was determined to do something about it — just don’t ask what.
As criticism goes, this is pretty odd. President Obama talking to television reporters about current events from the White House is, apparently, not “presidential.” Why? Because Richard Cohen says so. The public disagrees — recent polls show Americans entirely comfortable with the amount of time the president spends communicating through the media — but that apparently doesn’t matter.
But more important is the notion that Obama, standing alongside British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, was also not presidential enough in publicly revealing the existence of a secret Iranian nuclear facility. The problem, as Cohen sees it, is that the Western leaders warned Iran, but were vague about potential consequences.
It’s unclear why Cohen found this so offensive. Obama’s goal was to give the U.S. leverage, and put Iran on the defensive, in advance of this week’s talks in Geneva — representatives of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, Germany, and Iran will meet, and Obama, Brown, and Sarkozy added an increased “sense of urgency” to the discussions.
Indeed, President Obama seems to have played this very well. After achieving a victory on Thursday with the U.N. Security Council, his remarks on Friday had exactly the intended effect. Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, said Obama “played Iran perfectly, to isolate Iran, unite all the other countries around him, with an open hand to Iran, and then he springs the trap.” Even a Washington Times columnist noted, “Not only did the president look strong, he looked cunning.”
So what is Cohen whining about?
The columnist added:
The trouble with Obama is that he gets into the moment and means what he says for that moment only. He meant what he said when he called Afghanistan a “war of necessity” — and now is not necessarily so sure. He meant what he said about the public option in his health-care plan — and then again maybe not. He would not prosecute CIA agents for getting rough with detainees — and then again maybe he would.
Most tellingly, he gave Congress an August deadline for passage of health-care legislation — “Now, if there are no deadlines, nothing gets done in this town . . . ” — and then let it pass. It seemed not to occur to Obama that a deadline comes with a consequence — meet it or else.
Obama lost credibility with his deadline-that-never-was, and now he threatens to lose some more with his posturing toward Iran.
When Obama called Afghanistan a “war of necessity,” he was talking about the merits of launching the war, not with the value in sticking with an ineffective policy in the country. That’s not a flip-flop or a lack of commitment; it reflects an ability to adapt to changing circumstances.
Obama has never wavered in his support for a public option. Obama’s position on prosecuting torturers didn’t shift at all, though the Justice Department had its own ideas.
Obama didn’t “lose credibility” because Congress couldn’t wrap up health care reform before August — he gave lawmakers a target, which they missed. Nevertheless, the reform effort is further along than it’s ever been, and that’s due almost entirely to the president’s efforts.
Cohen’s entire piece sounds like he’s trying too hard to complain about Obama for no particular reason. He wants Obama to “understand” he’s the president and should act accordingly. I want Cohen to understand he’s an influential media figure and should act accordingly, too.
Update: Tim Fernholz is thinking along the same lines.