Of George W. Bush’s many obtuse utterances, few were more revealing than one he made to Scott Pelley of 60 Minutes in January 2007. Asked about the precarious security of postinvasion Iraq, the president complained that Americans felt slighted. “I think the Iraqi people owe the American people a huge debt of gratitude,” Bush said. He went on: “That’s the problem here in America. They wonder whether or not there is a gratitude level that’s significant enough in Iraq.”

I suspect that any Iraqi who heard that remark would have gladly traded his problems for an American’s hurt feelings. In 2007, 2 million Iraqi refugees remained in exile, households in Baghdad received four hours of electricity per day, and experts estimated that bombings, kidnappings, and disappearances had resulted in at least eighty-thousand civilian deaths, and perhaps twice that many. True, America had ended an oppressive regime and sacrificed heavily to do so. But the level of carnage accompanying that action was astounding. To the bitter end of his administration, Bush refused to acknowledge that the invasion was a mistake—and his administration consistently downplayed the high price Iraqis paid for their “liberation.” Not surprising for a president who prided himself on “gut” decisions as well as a refusal to second-guess himself. It was an experiment in political simplicity.

After eight years of this experiment, Americans desperately wanted a new kind of leader, one who would be serious and deliberative; who wouldn’t shrink from nuance; who would trust experts and think through all sides of an issue. We got the president we wanted. It is fitting that Barack Obama burst onto the national scene in opposition to the Iraq war, the event that epitomized his predecessor’s failings—and that brought the two presidents’ differences in temperament and judgment into starkest relief. “I don’t oppose war in all circumstances,” Obama explained in a 2002 speech. “What I am opposed to is a dumb war.” He went on to warn that “even a successful war against Iraq” would “require a United States occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.”

In retrospect, that speech captures much of what was exhilarating about Obama in 2008—and what is frustrating about him in 2011. To the 2008 electorate, the remarks represented thoughtfulness and nuance, as opposed to Bush’s Pollyannaish optimism and crude moralizing. But nowadays the same careful, equivocal Obama exasperates many of his supporters. In Obama’s formulation, Afghanistan is the war that was not dumb (but still not smart), the one worth more troops (but only with a withdrawal schedule attached), and on and on, until many of his supporters are left wondering if he really knows what to do. At least Bush could inspire his base. The excitement liberals felt in 2008 has been trampled under a dispiriting parade of half-measures from a cerebral, cautious president who gives them the impression of terminal ambivalence—or even indifference.

But that impression is mistaken. Obama has not abandoned his supporters, nor is he any less attached to their concerns than he was three years ago. I’m convinced that much of the disaffection with the president rests on his critics’ frequent failure to understand both the limits of political power and the tragic component of political action. Obama has a keen sense of both these realities, and his presidency is a case study in how to exercise power in spite of them. In other words, they are a daily rebuttal to the idea that politics is simple.

Many of Obama’s policies, on their face, seem like twisted compromises, the products of an administration unable to take a strong stand. But if Obama’s policies seem inelegant, it’s because they address problems in all their complexity. Consider Libya. Some pundits, having overlearned the lessons of Iraq, opposed even a limited mission to stop an imminent (and preventable) slaughter. Others, having learned nothing from Iraq, wondered why the president took so long, why his response wasn’t more muscular, and why he didn’t insist on U.S. rather than NATO leadership. What both sides failed to grasp is that Obama’s policy reflected the paradox of the crisis in Libya: while any intervention to stop a slaughter of innocents would require U.S. leadership, America simply could not be seen to be invading yet another predominantly Muslim country, particularly during a time of two costly wars. Obama crafted his approach to acknowledge both truths, embracing the mission of protecting Libya’s rebels only after waiting to assemble a broad coalition and ensuring that NATO would be at the helm.

This approach satisfied almost no one. It was too much for skeptics and not enough for interventionists. And because there was a deliberate tension in the president’s policy, it did not afford his supporters the comfort of an unambiguous posture. It is hard to defend enthusiastically a policy whose designer himself is openly ambivalent about it. Though defenders of the Iraq war were wrong, they could at least soothe themselves (and respond to skeptics) with comforting simplicities: the Iraqis will welcome us as liberators; Saddam poses an imminent threat; there are WMDs hidden throughout the country.

These simplicities, of course, proved catastrophically wrong, as did the theory of unbridled American power they bolstered; and tellingly, Obama avoided embracing a straightforward yes-or-no doctrine of humanitarian intervention in his Libya speech. He understood that America cannot remake the world—in fact, we can’t even intervene in every humanitarian crisis. So he was careful to emphasize the specificity of his decision, placing it “in this particular country,” “at this particular moment.” Explaining what made this particular time and place right for American action, the president laid out a series of specific criteria: the impending prospect of violence on a “horrific scale”; an international mandate to stop that violence; a broad coalition willing to help; substantial regional support; an invitation from the likely victims; and a high ratio of cost (no ground troops) to effectiveness (the prevention of a massacre).

Not every crisis will meet these criteria, and in those cases presidents will be faced with the awful choices Obama has already had to make. He understands deeply that awful choices are a permanent condition of politics. That is why Obama, unlike his predecessor, has no grand plan to remake the world for democracy, and no illusions about “defeating” evil. The hard truth is that not every problem can be solved simply; indeed, some cannot be solved at all, and even our best successes usually involve some kind of trade-off. Americans now have a president with enough confidence in himself—and enough respect for them—not to talk or act as if the world were otherwise.

It would be satisfying but hollow for Obama to make sweeping promises he has no power to keep; it would be dramatic but dangerous for him to plunge grandly into every crisis with the full weight and power of the presidency behind him. The lesson we Americans should have learned by now is that a president can press on against the world’s problems, but most of the time he is forced to do so in agonizing increments. It’s a frustrating process, but our response to it will reveal who among us really wanted adult leadership, and who just wanted a different kind of simplicity.

Related: Still Counting, by Ronald Osborn

Nathan Pippenger is a freelance writer in Berkeley, California.
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Published in the 2011-09-09 issue: View Contents
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