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Obama risks being called 'The Undecider'

By Julian E. Zelizer, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama hasn't been able to stick to some decisions he's made
  • Julian Zelizer says Obama has backed off on terror trials, Gitmo and financial regulation
  • He says push for health care bill allows Obama to show he will stand behind his decisions
  • Zelizer: Bush called himself "The Decider;" will Obama be known as "The Undecider"?
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Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. His new book is "Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security: From World War II to the War on Terrorism," published by Basic Books. Zelizer writes widely about current events.

(CNN) -- President Obama has had trouble sticking with his decisions. In several high-profile cases during his first year in the White House, there has been a pattern where the president takes a position on an important matter, feels the political heat for what he has said, and then backs off.

If President George W. Bush was the self-proclaimed "The Decider" who insisted on staying the course regardless of how many problems emerged with a policy, President Obama is starting to run the risk of becoming known as "The Undecider" who is unable to stand firm after announcing a position.

In the case of President Bush, what might have been a source of political strength turned into a political weakness.

President Bush's famous Harvard Business School/CEO mentality led him to believe that he should not second-guess his decisions. But when conditions suggested that his decision might not have been good, he could stubbornly refuse to change course. Many believe this was the case in the first few years of the Iraq war, when the strategy for rebuilding civil society was not working and the country was descending into chaos.

When retired generals criticized Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in 2006 and called for him to step down, Bush defiantly responded: "I'm the decider, and I decide what is best." It took several costly years of intense criticism, as well as a devastating midterm election in 2006, before he revised his policies.

With President Obama, it seems that the danger is just the opposite. On national security, there have been several instances when the president has backed off critical decisions.

When he started his term, the president immediately released an executive order to close Guantanamo. Yet over a year later, the facility remains open. When Democrats complained that the president had not laid the groundwork for this decision and they confronted heated attacks from Republicans in their home states, the president hesitated about moving forward.

After the failed Christmas Day bombing effort, the policy seemed to grind to a halt.

Similarly, the president made a major announcement that one of the 9/11 masterminds would be tried in a civilian court in New York. The announcement received the predictable criticism from Republicans who warned that Obama was endangering national security. Local New York officials, who initially agreed to the decision, changed their mind and said no to the White House. President Obama backed down and is now considering continuing to use military tribunals, which he once called a "legal black hole," to handle the case.

Nor is it likely that he will stick to the timetable that he outlined for withdrawing troops from Iraq, a signature promise from the campaign.

On domestic policy, the problem has been evident as well. President Obama promised stringent regulations on Wall Street to avoid a repeat of the financial meltdown from 2008.

But when Congress came back with relatively mild reforms, the president concurred. With government reforms such as campaign finance, the president has not moved forward with the strident promises he made on the campaign trail.

On health care, the president initially supported the public option, a proposal that elicited great enthusiasm from liberals, only to abandon the measure during Senate negotiations.

A victory on the current health care bill would allow President Obama to transform this perception by taking a source of weakness and turning it into a source of strength. The president would finally be able to demonstrate that he is willing to invest a considerable amount of political capital and time on a program.

The willingness to deliberate and to adjust can be a huge political asset. Despite the constant criticisms about "flip-flopping," Americans should in fact seek political leaders who are willing to listen, to analyze and to adjust in the process of forming policy. Voters should demand politicians who are willing to correct their own mistakes.

At the same time, the perception that a president is not willing to defend his decisions can quickly become debilitating to the White House. The more Republicans see they can force the president to back down, the more they will demand that he do so on future issues. It is like throwing red meat into a pool of sharks.

Equally important, indecision frequently leaves supporters on a political limb. When Democrats go to bat for the president on a contentious issue, they want to be sure he won't abandon them down the line.

This was a problem that President Jimmy Carter frequently encountered. In 1977, Carter proposed an economic stimulus bill that included a $50 rebate for middle class Americans.

Liberals were unhappy with the proposal because they thought the amount was too meager for Americans suffering from stagflation. Still, loyal to the White House, they defended Carter. However, Majority Leader Robert Byrd persuaded Carter to abandon the rebate, which Byrd said was too costly and unnecessary. When Carter agreed with Byrd, liberal Democrats were furious since they had to contend with an angry electorate and no benefits to deliver.

President Obama can't afford to become "The Undecider." If he wants to re-energize his presidency and improve his legislative scorecard, opponents need to know that when the White House proposes something it will fight tooth and nail for it. Supporters need to know that when they stand behind the president, he will not walk away.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian E. Zelizer.