During their time in office, most presidents learn. And usually their actions reflect what they’ve learned. That’s good: Learning is a vital part of being an effective leader, and it’s essential if you’re president. Regrettably, President Barack Obama doesn’t appear to be a good learner.
I don’t expect presidents to change their inner convictions. But I do expect them to recognize when the way they are going about advancing their convictions isn’t right for the times, and to change their assumptions or tactics accordingly.
Take Harry Truman. He entered the White House hoping to carry on FDR’s efforts to cooperate with the Soviets. But he realized that cooperation with Josef Stalin was a one-way street; so, instead of defending democracy in a great power alliance, he started defending it against the USSR.
Learning isn’t always about seeing the world anew. Some presidents, like Ronald Reagan, show they are learning by recognizing when it’s time to move from one part of a strategy (a defense buildup) to another (negotiations). That’s the best way to learn: from success.
From the close of World War II until 2008, only Lyndon B. Johnson failed to learn on the job. After getting us into the Vietnam War, he was never willing to either escalate massively or cut our losses and get out. Instead, he rode Vietnam all the way down.
One of the foremost reasons Obama was elected president was disillusionment with the Iraq War, which he promised to end. But that was only part of his broader vision of an America that would bear fewer burdens, and supposedly cause fewer problems, by “leading from behind,” as an Obama adviser described it, and by reaching out to nations like Russia that he believed President George W. Bush had alienated.
And Obama was true to his beliefs. He issued, but didn’t enforce, a red line in Syria. He stuck to the Russia reset — a bad idea to begin with — for far too long. He derided the seriousness of the Islamic State. He pivoted to Asia rhetorically, but put little substance behind it.
He worked hard to sell the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the Iran nuclear deal, both of which sought to reconcile the United States with its adversaries. And when he did take the lead, as in Libya, he immediately regretted it. Revealingly, the only error he acknowledges was that he stopped leading from the rear.
Leading from the front isn’t invariably the right answer. But not long into Obama’s presidency, the advantages to be had from backing off were swamped by the disadvantages. Obama learned the lessons of Iraq, perhaps because he had believed in them long before Iraq.
At times, Obama has tried to laugh off the idea that his leadership from the rear might have emboldened our adversaries. But as John Kerry admitted in December, the administration’s failure to enforce its August 2012 red line “cost us significantly in the region . . . I know that and so does the president.”
Obama may know it — but if so, he never put his knowledge into action. His policies at the end of his administration were of a piece with his policies at the start. He started off angry with Israel, and ended angry. He began with a reset for Russia, and ended with one for Cuba. He was as eager to improve relations with Iran in 2016 as he was in 2009. And his White House seemed genuinely angry at Vladimir Putin only after the Russians hacked the Democratic National Committee.
You might call this consistency. But as LBJ showed, consistency born of a failure to learn isn’t a virtue. And Obama’s consistency served neither him nor the nation well.
Obama is a man of strong convictions who had — even for a U.S. president — enormous confidence in his own judgment. It’s too bad he didn’t have another kind: the confidence to do what his predecessors did, and learn from his mistakes.
Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center for Freedom.