Washington, July 16: In the nearly two weeks since Egypt’s military seized power, President Obama has promoted a better federal bureaucracy, given a medal to George Lucas of Star Wars fame and had former President George Bush to the White House for lunch. What he has not done is publicly address the violent upheaval in Cairo.
That is not to say Obama is uninvolved. In the privacy of the West Wing, away from the cameras, he has made calls to leading figures in the Arab world and has met advisers trying to influence the crisis. But his low public profile on issues like immigration, Syria and health care underscores a calculated presidential approach that admirers consider nuanced and detractors call passive.
While other Presidents have put the bully in the bully pulpit, Obama uses his megaphone, and the power that comes with it, sparingly, speaking out when he decides his voice can shape the trajectory of an issue and staying silent when he thinks it might be counterproductive. In his first year, the President seemed to be everywhere, talking about everything. In his fifth year, he is choosing his opportunities — even if it appears he is not always in command of events.
Some compare Obama’s approach to the “hidden hand” style of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who often steered events behind the scenes without being public about his role. Jim Newton, the author of Eisenhower: The White House Years, a book with back-cover blurbs from defence secretary Chuck Hagel and secretary of state John Kerry, said Obama was like the former President in avoiding major international conflict, relying more on covert action and letting Congress take the lead in legislation.
“In those senses, Obama does appear to me to be taking a page from Eisenhower’s playbook,” Newton said. “What I don’t know, however, is how aggressively Obama is working out of view on these matters.
“The essence of Eisenhower’s hidden hand, of course, is that there was real work going on that people didn’t know at the time. If that’s true now, then Obama really is emulating Ike (Eisenhower’s nickname). If, on the other hand, he’s simply doing nothing or very little, that would be passivity, not hidden-hand leadership.”
Susan Eisenhower, a granddaughter of the late President, said it might be too soon to tell.
“Eisenhower’s hidden-hand means of meeting his objectives were not really evident until his papers were opened, many decades after he left office,” Susan said.
But she added that Obama should emulate her grandfather by engaging in a deep review of West Asia policy, much as Eisenhower’s Solarium project developed a grand strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union.
“Ultimately, Obama will be judged for his strategic goals and his capacity to execute on them,” Susan said. “Finding something that works is nearly impossible to do in a rapidly changing security environment unless there is an overarching way of thinking about US interests.”
Just as Eisenhower, the 34th President, pulled troops out of Korea and avoided other military adventures, Obama has pulled out of Iraq, is leaving Afghanistan, has limited intervention in Libya largely to airstrikes and has resisted being drawn directly into the civil war in Syria.
Obama’s inner circle includes some Eisenhower admirers. Defence secretary Hagel bought 30 copies of a recent book on the former President’s handling of the 1956 Suez crisis to distribute to fellow administration officials. Denis R. McDonough, the White House chief of staff, cites Eisenhower’s emphasis on planning.
Eisenhower kept his hand hidden while still speaking regularly with reporters. He held news conferences an average of every two weeks. Obama, by contrast, gives interviews to select organisations, but has far fewer day-in, day-out interactions with journalists than his recent predecessors, and therefore avoids being asked about many issues of the moment.