Michael Gerson

Call this what you will -- narcissism comes to mind -- but it has little to do with the wartime leadership (during wars hot and cold) of presidents such as Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. They expressed an unyielding commitment to one side of an ideological divide -- the side involving freedom and self-government. And they revealed metal beneath their charm, which inspired American troops and disconcerted American enemies.

Even on domestic priorities such as health care, Obama is more professorial than passionate, more explanatory than inspirational. In tragedy -- such as the Fort Hood shootings -- his public reactions can be oddly muted and medicinal. What makes Obama outraged? For what would he willingly sacrifice his popularity, his pride, his presidency?

Obama has sometimes been accused of Carter-like weakness. In temperament, the more apt historical comparison is President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was cerebral, cold and aloof, at least in public. With admirable self-knowledge, he called himself a "vague, conjectural personality, more made up of opinions and academic prepossessions than of human traits and red corpuscles."

Elected as a progressive reformer, Wilson entered World War I with a deep, liberal reluctance. But he became a wartime leader. "Again and again," he said in 1919, "mothers who lost their sons in France have come to me and, taking my hand, have shed tears upon it not only, but they have added, 'God bless you, Mr. President!' Why, my fellow citizens, should they pray God to bless me? I advised the Congress of the United States to create the situation that led to the death of their sons. I ordered their sons overseas. I consented to their sons being put in the most difficult parts of the battle line, where death was certain. ... Why should they weep upon my hand and call down the blessings of God upon me? Because they believe that their boys died for something that vastly transcends any of the immediate and palpable objects of the war. They believe, and they rightly believe, that their sons saved the liberty of the world."

Once a decision is made on Afghanistan, Obama will need a similar transfusion of red corpuscles -- and need to make a similar case. In Afghanistan and other distant places, America's sons and daughters are saving the liberty of the world.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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