A Line in the Sand Is Occasionally Useful

by David Bromwich David Bromwich is a professor of Literature at Yale 08.07.2009

Two significant comments in the past two days by trusted White House advisers, which Barack Obama has felt compelled to correct, taken together suggest that Obama's inside style is so masked, conciliatory, and evenhanded that even the people closest to him are not sure where his willingness to compromise stops. Joe Biden's comment that Israel is a sovereign nation, and can decide its own actions, was hardly an unrehearsed response. For Biden said the same thing in just the same careful words more than once, in replying to the same question. Similarly with Rahm Emanuel on the possibility of dispensing with the "public option" in the Obama plan for health care. Emanuel said that the option might only be held in reserve, to be triggered as necessary by a crisis. He did not make this up. Plainly he was repeating a formulation he had heard and thought he understood, but whose exact valence his ear mistook.

Both positions -- that Israel's sovereignty is absolute, and the U.S. must never appear to press Israel very hard, so that Israel might even be allowed to bomb Iran if it made the strongest case; and that the public option may just have to be dropped, and is indeed ultimately expendable, provided it can be held in reserve in the way spelled out by Emanuel -- both views (one must suppose) were "entertained" by the president in a manner so lacking in definition that his vice president and his chief of staff took him to have budged. Both believed they were authorized to convey a subtle change of stance. Then embarrassment struck on both fronts, and Obama backed off his backing off.

It has been said by many observers that Barack Obama is the only leader at present in the world who has some of the qualities of a world leader. And if urbanity, grace, and the ability to take long views are what we have in mind, it is clear why so many cherish the hope that this lofty estimate will turn out to be true. But principle is a different matter from style. Commitment is measured not by large intentions, but by specific tenacity; and this means at points a refusal of pliability whose meaning is impossible to mistake. Yet, on this question of political character, the evidence on Obama is mixed and its core oddly elusive. Can he be a world leader without being a leader of his cabinet or his country?

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