OPINION: Obama is weak; GOP no better

The 2012 race for the White House will be a referendum on President Obama’s leadership.

The only way to make sense of recent political strategies emerging from the Republican majority in the House is that they are preparing the groundwork for a future GOP nominee to make the case that the incumbent Democrat is a weak leader, a cautious man better fit for debates at the faculty club than to offer bold, clear leadership on important foreign and domestic policy issues.

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The president’s leadership on Libya has emerged as the GOP’s prime example of his failure to offer clear direction to America and the world. The president first announced that U.S. policy is to depose Gadhafi. He then backed away from this by saying the U.S. military’s goal is limited by the U.N. resolution to preventing a government slaughter of the rebels.

A Gallup poll released Friday found Americans split down the middle on the president’s handling of Libya with 44 percent approving and 44 percent in opposition. Earlier in the week, a Quinnipiac poll reported the lowest approval rating ever for the president at 42 percent. Several Republicans on the Hill mentioned the poll to me and attributed it to questions about the president’s handling of Libya. They see it as a hook to pull voters into the message that the president is no leader.

But what about Republican leadership? The president’s approval numbers may be down as he prepares to begin his reelection campaign but they are still higher than any of the Republicans talking about running for the nomination. And they are far higher than public opinion of Republicans in the House. A CNN poll late last month found 64 percent of Americans disapprove of Republicans in Congress and 34 percent approve. In their haste to paint a picture of this president as a dithering, slow-to-decide, nervous Nellie, the Republicans have ignored their own low standing as leaders.

What is the public to make of Republicans like Rep. Ileana Ros-Lethnien (R-Fla.)? The chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee at first said the president was being too slow in imposing a no-fly zone. Two weeks later when the president imposed it, she changed her critical tune in an astounding flip-flop. “The bottom line is you have to ask what is the U.S. security interest in getting involved in Libya?” she declared. “Because there is unrest everywhere. Today it is Libya. Tomorrow it will be somewhere else.”

And what about the leadership displayed by Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) the chairman of House Armed Services Committee? He also initially criticized the president for being slow to act in Libya, saying Obama was “doing a great job of doing nothing on Libya.” On March 20, after the U.S. intervention, he said: “I am concerned that the use of military force in the absence of clear political objectives for our country risks entrenching the United States in a humanitarian mission whose scope and duration are not known at this point and cannot be controlled by us.”

That brand of hypocritical politics by House Republicans and two-faced criticism by GOP stalwarts like Newt Gingrich remind Americans that no matter how uncertain they may feel about the president there is no reason to embrace Republican leadership. Just last week polls showed a majority of Americans disapprove of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given that it was President Bush and Republicans on Capitol Hill who started those wars and presided over their mismanagement, the GOP is forgetting they need to put a better face on their own brand of leadership in order to effectively criticize the president.

President Obama pulled together an international coalition and won support for the intervention in the United Nations. He has been successful in establishing the no-fly zone and averted what would have most likely been a massacre of the rebel forces by Gadhafi’s regime in Benghazi. Now, he has set the stage for European allies and even some Arab nations to share in the responsibility for Libya after the intervention. These are all points that Republicans on the Hill should embrace as a basis for establishing their own Middle East military policy.

One Republican showing what sincere criticism of the President should look like is Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). In an interview with CNN after the president’s speech on Libya last week, McCain praised the president for taking action. His critique was to say it was a “serious mistake” for the president to pledge not to use military force in order to take Gadhafi out of power.

That is fair. But it puts McCain at odds with the military and the public who oppose sending ground forces to Libya. McCain has been consistent and stood tall as a leader. But McCain’s brand of leadership has already been put up against President Obama and any Republican knows all too well how that turned out.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.


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