The end of the inbox presidency?
The Washington Post, May 4, 2011
Post-Osama, the fascinating question is this: What does President Obama want to do with this opportunity? Obama's impressive command of the operation that killed Osama bin Laden has given the president a rare chance to move beyond the inbox nature of his presidency.
Though it's often forgotten by both critics and supporters, the president's entire tenure has been defined by the mess he inherited. This wasn't what Obama expected; until September 2008, the candidate of hope and change assumed he would have a more open canvas on which to paint. All that vanished with the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the onset of the financial crisis.
At that point the die was cast. Virtually everything big that's happened since on the domestic frontthe stimulus, the TARP saga, the auto bailout, banking reform, the debt and deficits, and the de facto second stimulus via the lame-duck session deal last Decemberwas ordained by the economic meltdown. Ditto the necessity of managing the Iraq withdrawal on the foreign policy front.
"Events, dear boy, events," was British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's classic line about what governed the fate of political leaders. Obama's idol likewise knew what an illusion it was to think even presidents were in charge. "I claim not to have controlled events," President Abraham Lincoln said, "but confess plainly that events have controlled me."
The great exceptions to Obama's inbox presidencythe only major things he's done that he didn't have to tackle because of his inheritance, or because of spontaneous combustions, such as the Arab awakeninghave been health-care reform and the Afghanistan surge.
I've always thought Obama persisted on health care, in the face of political counsel to "go small" and be done with it, precisely because he couldn't stomach the idea that his entire four years would amount to cleaning up messes he didn't create, leaving him with no affirmative thumbprint on history if it turned out he served only one term. Obama had to play the hand he was dealt; but health care showed just how much the man chafed at being an inbox president. Going big on health care was a revealing choice. That Obama has willingly paid a stiff political price for refusing to be fully defined by his inbox makes it all the more admirable.
Now, in the wake of his dramatic bin Laden success, Obama has an opening to think outside the inbox. It's one of those moments when it seems possible to reshape the climate of opinionwhen national pride and a sense of unity blend to make history seem temporarily malleable. A moment, in other words, when, if a president were so inclined, he could decide to throw the long ball.
We know President George H.W. Bush did not seize a similar moment after the Persian Gulf war, when pride at our military's swift eviction of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait left Bush's approval ratings near 90 percent. Instead Bush coasted, and the sagging economy did him in a scant 18 months later.
We know Bush the younger squandered his moment of unity, when, in the wake of Sept. 11, he summoned America to no great cause but urged us instead to go shopping, and then, under the sway of Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, devoted his energies to fighting a threat in Iraq that turned out to be an illusion.
Bill Clinton never got such a moment. And now Obama has what may be the most potent of them all.
Obama has to be weighing whether he will merely harness this success cautiously to help him win in 2012or whether he feels it alters the landscape enough to let him escape the inbox altogether and strive to achieve more ambitious goals even in the next year.
We'll learn Obama's choice starting Thursday when he speaks at Ground Zero. The president can tell us that we should honor the Sept. 11 victims by becoming the best America we can be. And that, inspired by our military's courage and daring this past week, he's convinced that both parties are not aiming high enough when it comes to tackling our challengesfrom jobs to the budget, from schools to energy.
The military's model of sacrifice and devotion to duty can be tapped in this moment to awaken the rest of us to a new sense of national possibility. Our special forces took bin Laden out to protect our way of lifebut it's up to us to make that way of life fully worthy of admiration. As Churchill exhorted: "Deserve victory!"
Here's hoping Obama goes big.