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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Dana Milbank: Conservatives take roundabout route to accurate Obama appraisal

Dana Milbank
Dana Milbank
Dana Milbank

In July, when House Republicans voted to sue the president, they spoke of the urgent need to stop “tyranny” at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. “Our freedom is in peril,” warned Rep. Tom Rice of South Carolina, the man behind the lawsuit. “We cannot stand by and watch the president shred our Constitution.”

Well, it turns out they can stand by. Three months later, no lawsuit has been filed. Politico’s Josh Gerstein, citing “lawyers close to the process,” reported that they don’t expect any legal action before the election.

Apparently, the Obama dictatorship is not such a threat after all. Conservatives have, in recent weeks, done a 180 in their attack on the president. They have, for the most part, dropped their accusations that he is an out-of-control, overreaching autocrat. Instead, they are calling him a weak and passive leader, nothing more than a bystander.

My colleague Charles Krauthammer captured the revised consensus when he wrote on Friday that with “a sense of disorder growing – the summer border crisis, Ferguson, the rise of the Islamic State, Ebola – the nation expects from the White House not miracles but competence. At a minimum, mere presence. An observer presidency with its bewildered-bystander pose only adds to the unease.”

I don’t get to say this very often, so let me seize the opportunity: I agree entirely with Krauthammer. And I welcome conservatives to their new and more accurate critique of Obama.

Since the second year of Obama’s presidency, I have been lamenting the lack of strong leadership coming from the White House, describing Obama in June, 2010, as a “hapless bystander … as the crises cancel his agenda and weaken his presidency.” I’ve since described him over the years as “oddly like a spectator” and as “President Passerby.”

Krauthammer, like other conservatives, has frequently bemoaned this “imperial president” and Obama’s “executive overreach,” but he has also occasionally recognized Obama’s standoffishness. “The paradox of this presidency is that this most passive bystander president is at the same time the most ideologically ambitious in decades,” he wrote in December.

But it isn’t really a paradox. Obama’s ambitious agenda was shut down after Republicans took control of the House in 2010. The executive actions he has taken since then that infuriate conservatives are actually a reflection of weakness. The orders are limited in their reach (lacking the force of statute) and duration (they will only continue beyond Obama’s presidency if his successor opts to continue them).

In the past, conservatives harmonized the contradictory criticism of Obama by saying he’s a tyrant at home but a weakling abroad. Ebola has caused the distinction to vanish.

Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, calls Obama unfocused on Ebola because the administration “couldn’t run the IRS right, and it apparently is not running the CDC right. And you ask yourself: ‘What is it going to take to have a president who really focuses?’ ”

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a sober voice in the party, voiced his hope on CNN that the administration “would take this more seriously. … Unfortunately, this is another example where the administration was not as engaged early on as they should have been.”

A less sober voice, Sarah Palin, told Fox News that the “administration’s incompetency is really shining bright in this one.” She added that “there is a void of leadership here.”

Obama the unfocused tyrant! The disengaged dictator! The man who shreds the Constitution with … a void of leadership.

Dozens of Republican lawmakers, and a few Democrats, complaining about too little action from Obama, have called for travel bans to fight Ebola, while various governors, trying to placate a panicky public, have set up quarantines that the federal government has resisted.

Obama, as usual, remains dispassionate, cool, detached. “He responds in a very rational way, trying to gather facts, rely on the best expert advice and mobilize the necessary resources,” Obama confidant David Axelrod told BusinessWeek’s Josh Green, who likened Obama’s crisis management to a graduate seminar. “There’s no doubt that there’s a theatrical nature to the presidency that he resists,” Axelrod said.

That’s very similar to the criticism recently offered by former Pentagon and CIA chief for Obama, Leon Panetta: “Too often in my view the president relies on the logic of the law professor rather than the passion of a leader.”

Ebola is doing many horrible things to humanity, but at least it has caused conservatives to join this consensus. Obama’s flaw is not that he abuses his power, but that he uses it too little.

Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post. Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter: @Milbank.
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