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Who Is Obama? Now We Know

Posted on May 6, 2011

By E.J. Dionne Jr.

Barack Obama is not the man many Americans thought he was. This sudden realization has transformed American politics.

The sheer audacity of the successful operation against Osama bin Laden has forced Obama’s friends and foes alike to reassess what they make of a chief executive who defies easy categorization and reveals less about himself than politicians are typically drawn to do.

Obama is hard to understand because he is many things and not just one thing. He has now proved that he can be bold at an operational level, even as he remains cautious at a philosophical level. His proclivity to gather facts and weigh alternatives does not lead automatically, in the venerable phrase, to the paralysis of analysis. It can also end in daring action tempered by prudence—for example, making sure that additional helicopters were available to our Navy SEALs.

The president’s rhetoric has often emphasized caring, compassion and community, the language one expects from a moderately liberal politician. Yet as one of his close aides told me long ago, there is inside a very cool, tough, even hard man. Obama is not reluctant to use American military power. He was not at all queasy about authorizing the killing of an American enemy and the disposal of the body at sea to ensure that there would be no memorial to rally bin Laden’s followers.

Obama told us who he is in one of the most celebrated statements he made—about the war in Iraq—before he ran for president. His listeners tended to pay far more attention to the war he criticized than to his reasons for criticizing it. “I am not opposed to all wars,” he declared in 2002. “I’m opposed to dumb wars.” Note when it comes to armed conflict, the word “dumb” is not typically part of the lexicon of a moralist.


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The fact that Obama is not a moralist has led to many of the frustrations vented about him over the last 27 months. Liberals don’t get why it takes him so long to get around to taking on the political right over the fundamental purposes of government and the requirements of social justice. Advocates of democracy and human rights ask why he was so slow to invoke the word “democracy” as a touchstone of his foreign policy, and why he was so guarded in his initial response to the Arab Spring.

Supporters of a muscular and interventionist American foreign policy suspect him of believing that the decline of the United States is unavoidable and of seeing himself primarily as a steward whose task is to manage our steady loss of influence.

It is this last claim that took such a profound blow when Obama approved the operation against bin Laden and chose the riskiest option involving a face-to-face confrontation with American commandos—on the orders of the president of the United States. 

Obama’s conceptual complexity means that he rejects the idea that there are just two alternatives: the United States as the world’s sole superpower, or an America slinking off into weakness and irrelevance. Binary choices are not for him.

Instead, he sees a world in which new powers—China most obviously, but also India and, someday, Brazil—inevitably rise to challenge American dominance. The United States’ task is not to prevent the ineluctable emergence of other strong nations. Its imperative is to remain an enormously powerful force fully capable of shaping the globe’s new arrangements, defending its interests and values, and prospering in an ever more competitive environment.

And anyone who doubted our willingness to project our might as we see fit will have second thoughts after the events in Abbottabad.

This single action does not “change everything” because nothing ever changes everything. Killing one man does not settle two messy wars. Obama’s political standing will ultimately rise or fall largely on the basis of domestic issues and economic circumstances. The president’s supporters will again experience bouts of frustration when his philosophical caution prevails over his bold streak in the less martial work of negotiating budgets and promoting the general welfare at home. His opponents will not suddenly embrace his priorities.

But because he ordered this attack, and because it was successful, no one will ever view Barack Obama in quite the same way again.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne(at)
(c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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By Big B, May 6, 2011 at 12:36 pm Link to this comment

Nothing to see here. More of the same from another one of prez Barry’s fans in the press corp. Dionne, like so many others, want to critize Barry, but are afraid to for fear that he might actually do something liberal just to prove tham wrong. Please! Make him do something liberal!

Barry continues to do exactly what all his presidential predasessors did in their 3rd year/first term. Find an international incident that seems to cry out for american intervention, wrap yourself in the flag, and sick the military on someone. Just add water and stir. Instant foreign policy street cred.

Barry has continued the imperial presidency. And like a bad child continues to insist “but I didn’t start it”.

Also, is there anybody out there who believes the bullshit CIA version of that day’s events. If you do, count yourself among the worst of the rubes.

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By Mary Cozad, May 6, 2011 at 12:36 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Too bad he’s not using the same prudent boldness and leadership ability to do something about the job situation in this country.

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By philippe, May 6, 2011 at 12:34 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

‘our willingness to project our might as we see fit’ - spoken like a true liberal coward. pathetic and o so very dangerous.

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By Miko, May 6, 2011 at 12:12 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Obama has never been any stranger to torture, murder,
and militarism.  I view him exactly the way that I did

Along those lines, Dionne views Obama exactly as he did
before too: as a guide for what Dionne should consider
to be good.  What a partisan hack.

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By Mike Flugennock, May 6, 2011 at 12:09 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“Not the man many Americans thought he was”? No shit, Sherlock. Man, was that column a steaming heap o’triangulation, or what? Jeezus, now I know how a stack of pancakes feels when they pour on the Mrs. Butterworth’s. Congrats, E.J., you’re giving Richard Cohen a run for his money for the title of World’s Worst Columnist.

The reason Obama takes so long to take on the Right is that he’s basically in fundamental agreement with them.

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By Ralph Kramden, May 6, 2011 at 11:49 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

What a silly article. Obama has the scruples of an Al Capone. Correct that, Al Capone did not assassinate family members of his enemies as Obama has done with Gadaffi and countless times in Afghanistan. Who is Obama? A constitutional lawyer that totally ignores the constitution; a Nobel-Prize-Winner who loves war. Notice how he never risks an ounce of his own flesh, he always lets others do the fighting, the torturing, the murdering. In short, according to the Geneva conventions, he is a war criminal. Oh, and by the way, did he ever reinstitute habeas corpus? This reporter is on bended knee telling us about his Pope Obama.

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By maruata, May 6, 2011 at 11:43 am Link to this comment

Such gushing admiration for a man who simply diverted a small part of the
trillion dollar US defense budget to a handful of Black Hawks and a SEAL team.

There is nothing admirable about it. Murder of any kind is not admirable.

The US needs to forget about finding pride in War victories and focus more
looking after the people back home.

Obama has been nothing but a complete antithesis of every campaign promise
from the minute he stepped into office.

We’re still in Afghanistan, Iraq, still saber rattling with Iraq and probably now
Pakistan. Guantanamo is more shameful than ever.

The country is in social collapse and the rich are paying even less taxes.

No, sorry, this will change nothing for those of us who have seen how Obama is
devoted only to the banks that put him in office and the power… just like any
other president.

Nothing to admire here.

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By SoTexGuy, May 6, 2011 at 11:35 am Link to this comment

Obama is ‘not a moralist’.

That sounds better than Obama is ‘amoral’.

And by the way.. him being such a visionary.. looking forward to the challenges to American world dominance.. What does he think about that? What is it about American leadership in the world that so draws dissent and challenge?

It doesn’t seem like he’s got any plan in the making other than more of the same.

Anyway, his biggest challenge is here at home. Where is he? A little moralizing from him might be in order.


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By TDoff, May 6, 2011 at 11:31 am Link to this comment

Too bad Obama is not so gutsy about confronting the members of the previous administration for their treachery and malfeasance and total disregard of international law and the laws of the US. Not by assassination, but by calling them to account in a court of law.

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