Obama: Substitute teacher in chief


To be a good president requires the combined skills of chess master and middle-school teacher.

The chess master president possesses the ability to think several steps ahead. To take one recent example: asserting that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross a red line. “A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” President Obama said in August. “That would change my equation. ... We have put together a range of contingency plans.”

Great, and, in the best of all worlds, the threat — made privately and amplified publicly — might have sufficed to deter Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But, as the president’s reference to contingency plans indicated and events proved, this was no sure bet. So the chess master president needs to think through — and before drawing the line — what, exactly, he is willing to do in response.

Another recent example of the need to game things out: the sequester. I wouldn’t fault Obama for failing to foresee that the cuts would be triggered. “It will not happen,” he declared in the final presidential debate, and while that was unduly declarative, it was a reasonable bet. Even the canniest chess player can be flummoxed when his opponent is willing to resort to wacky moves, one minute decrying the threat to national security, the next embracing defense cuts.

Public response

Where Obama’s strategic planning fell short, though, was in calculating the public and political response to cuts. Having overplayed his hand with sky-is-falling warnings at the start of sequestration, the president then failed to figure out what his next move would be — or stick to that plan — once the sky actually started to fall.

Here was Obama in March, as the cuts began. “My hope is that after some reflection, as members of Congress start hearing from constituents who are being negatively impacted ... that they step back and say, all right, is there a way for us to move forward. ... It may take a couple of months, but I’m just going to keep on pushing on it.”

White House officials confidently predicted that when the sequester cuts began to bite, Republicans would return to the table. But guess who’s flinching now? When the airport delays began, the White House faced a revolt — a veto-proof revolt — among lawmakers of both parties. It had calculated that Republicans would bear the blame for triggering the sequester. Instead, it ended up panicking, or at least being swayed by panicky fellow Democrats, that its own party would suffer.

You didn’t have to be Bobby Fischer to figure out that constituents — loud, influential constituents — would start to holler when they were trapped for hours on the Delta Shuttle.

Which brings us to the president as middle-school teacher. Consider: Middle-schoolers are a boisterous bunch, swayed by emotions and not always acting logically. Sound like certain countries — or certain legislative bodies? They require understanding but also discipline, with enforced consequences for behaving inappropriately.


Think of the no-nonsense veteran teacher who announces at the start of the year that she brooks no misbehavior and marks down for misspellings. She is the teacher that kids grumble about but who ends up being their most lasting influence.

Obama, on Syria and sequester, risks becoming instead the hapless substitute, pelted by spitballs. Having drawn a red line, he is now busy blurring it, mumbling about establishing a “chain of custody.” By “game-changer,” he said at Tuesday’s news conference, “I mean that we would have to rethink the range of options that are available to us.” Oooh, ooh, I’m scared now.

The president is correct that there are risks in acting too rashly as well as too late, in intervening without international buy-in. He will be criticized for holding back, then questioned for choosing to act.

The difficulty is that, if you’re the kid in the back of the class — Iran or North Korea — waiting to see what the teacher might do, you’re thinking, I don’t need to worry about this guy. He’ll back down in the end. Every middle-school teacher knows: Without enforced limits, the hooligans — in Congress or abroad — end up emboldened, not chastened.

Washington Post Writers Group

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