The limits of Obama's patience

Recently, I wrote a column commending President Obama for his long-range vision and for the patience to wait, beyond his own term if necessary, for the rewards to appear.

The column really irritated a reader in Maryland, who unloaded on Washington Post ombudsman Andy Alexander, who sent the complaint on to me.

"Andy," the reader wrote, "one way for us to gain more insights into the minds of Post news section reporters is to read the columns of former news section reporters. I found today's column by David Broder to be very revealing. Broder is excited about how patient our president is, and how this will be good for the future.

"A more skeptical mind might see how this 'patience' is emboldening Iran to build a highly destabilizing nuclear threat that will be bad for the future of our country and bad for our world. A more skeptical mind might see how piling debt on debt on debt by the federal government is not a victory for patience, but rather will lead to a massive burden for the next generation and declines in our standard of living. But at least the USA will be less exceptional compared to the rest of the world.

"Patience is not going to lead to better health care for our people. Rather, a virtually inevitable doctor shortage and various other problems created by government controls will bring our system down to a much lower quality and long waits for mediocre care. But at least more people will have health care insurance.


"If these are goals to be applauded," he concluded, "then I understand where Broder and his fellow travelers are coming from."

Aside from the "fellow travelers" phrase in the last paragraph, which struck me as a cheap shot redolent of 1950s-style anti-communism, I really admired the letter and thought the writer was making valid and important points.

I do not agree with him that health care reform will inevitably have the bad effects he suggests, but I think it's fortunate that before it becomes operational in 2014, two Congresses will have time to strengthen its cost-cutting provisions.

We are far more in agreement about the threat of debt than my critic wants to acknowledge. I have written so often, to the point that some readers probably resent it, about our calamitous deficits and the inevitability of entitlement cuts and revenue increases.

But unlike the Maryland man, I'm prepared to acknowledge Obama's argument that it makes no sense to raise taxes overall while the economy is still struggling to recover from the worst recession in more than 60 years.

As for Iran, the letter coincided with the report in The New York Times that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a remarkable truth-teller, had sent the president a memo raising an alarm at the absence of a clear U.S. strategy to deal with the mullahs' drive for nuclear arms.

Gates was reported to have raised directly with Obama the risk that has been much discussed — that foot-dragging by China and Russia will weaken and delay any sanction regime imposed through the United Nations and leave the United States and its allies with a dreadful choice between armed conflict or acceptance of a nuclear-armed Iran.

The administration and Gates himself promptly tried to walk the story back, but it's clear there was such a memo and the interpretation of its undisclosed language was not far from the meaning the Times attached.


In truth, I had heard another senior administration official, dining with a small group of reporters two weeks ago, say that in his judgment, within a year to 18 months, after the diplomats have played out their hands at the U.N., we will face a showdown with Iran.

What then of the patience for which I praised Obama? The only answer can be: It has its limits. Patience is not sufficient in itself to solve problems. It can only contribute to making policy a success by fitting it to the right timing.

In neither of these crucial issues do I see an advantage for Obama rushing the action, let alone reversing it, as the Marylander seems to suggest on health care. But patience alone is not enough.

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