Communicating his goals still not Obama's strong suit
The revamped White House staff has a new chief of staff and a new press secretary. But President Obama's handling of the U.S. military action in Libya suggests he hasn't corrected his persistent problems in communicating with Congress and the American people.
Those shortcomings undercut Obama's long fight to win enactment of his far-ranging health reform bill. They complicated his increasingly successful efforts to rescue the economy from the mess he inherited.
Now, they've recurred as he moved from his initial reluctance to intervene in Libya to an active American military role in preventing the massacre of anti-government rebels and putting pressure on its brutal dictator, Moammar Gadhafi. It's a major reason many Americans have doubts about a campaign that, considering the target, should be overwhelmingly popular.
On Monday night, Obama finally delivered the nationally televised speech he should have made 10 days ago, defending the Libya campaign as necessary to prevent "a looming humanitarian crisis." By acting, he said, "We have stopped Gadhafi's deadly advance."
Simultaneously rejecting those who oppose any military action and placing limits on what the U.S. will do, Obama said he had no intention of using ground troops or broadening the current effort to force "regime change" in Libya. Reinforcing the contrast with his predecessor, he said pointedly, "We went down that road in Iraq," noting that "regime change" took eight years, thousands of lives and nearly $1 trillion.
The irony in all this is that, as in the case of Obama's much derided economic stimulus program and controversial health plan, he is basically doing the right thing in Libya. Republican critics, especially in the Senate, seem to have conveniently forgotten they voted for U.N. imposition of a no-fly zone, not to mention the inherent complexities in the situation.
Rather than becoming a third U.S. war in an Islamic state, the Libya operation seems more like the campaign former President Bill Clinton and NATO mounted a dozen years ago to protect ethnic Albanians in Kosovo from Serbian persecution.
It caused more than 10,000 civilian deaths but minimal U.S. and allied casualties and led within a year to the ouster of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who had been charged with crimes against humanity for alleged persecution of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
Interestingly, aside from the usual nay-saying anti-war liberals like Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, most initial congressional criticism focused less on Obama's actions in Libya themselves than on his failure to consult more with Congress and give a better explanation to the American people.
Their criticism was valid because, unlike other presidents who addressed the American people when they launched international hostilities, Obama's initial announcement and his notification to lawmakers were cursory at best: an early afternoon statement for the cameras and a White House briefing for some congressional leaders a day after the U.N. Security Council voted to impose the no-fly zone.
Then, Obama flew off to Latin America, where his main explanations of the Libya operation were at brief daytime news conferences with the Chilean and Salvadoran presidents, hardly the most effective venue for reaching the American people.
Only after House Speaker John Boehner delivered some pointed questions to Obama about the White House handling of the mission and the president returned from his trip did his aides hold a second briefing and schedule Monday's speech.
Polls illustrate the problem he caused himself. Support for the operation, while favorable, was well below that for prior U.S. military actions. In one recent Pew poll, fully half of those responding saw no clear goal.
Obama's speech won't fully satisfy those concerns for the simple reason that only time can answer the inevitable uncertainties. Obama wisely refused to set firm rules for future interventions, declaring they would depend both on the circumstances and the prospect U.S. actions would help.
And by stressing the substance of his actions, the president gave only passing acknowledgement to congressional complaints about the lack of prior consultation. He knows this has been a common thread in legislative-presidential relations for nearly a half-century and that, in the end, the key factor will be the degree to which the Libya operation succeeds.