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Published: Sunday, 10/18/2009

The President's Frank Capra moment

WASHINGTON - Maybe it happened on an afternoon when no one was looking. Maybe it occurred when everyone was focused on something else, or preoccupied with other matters. Maybe it happened one night.

But this is no romantic comedy, and there is no Clark Gable or Claudette Colbert involved. Yet it definitely happened. The Iraq war, once owned by George W. Bush, suddenly became Barack Obama's. So, too, the war in Afghanistan. And the economy. Don't forget the threat from Iran. They're all Mr. Obama's now.

I'm calling it President Obama's Frank Capra moment, and it's playing on a video screen near you - though, unlike the 1934 movie for which this phenomenon is named, no one falls in love with a reporter looking for a story. (This is a drama, not a fantasy.)

There is a moment like this in every administration, when the burdens of the predecessor are transferred to the present occupant of the White House. For a while, the upheaval in Cuba was Dwight D. Eisenhower's problem. The day in April, 1961, when the Bay of Pigs invasion collapsed in confusion it became John F. Kennedy's problem (and part of his presidential identity), even though he was reading from the Eisenhower playbook. For weeks, even months, Vietnam was a problem to be blamed on Kennedy, or Eisenhower, or the French, but eventually it became Lyndon Johnson's war and, following that, Richard Nixon's.

Mr. Obama's Frank Capra moment came in the last week or so, though it is impossible to specify the precise moment it arrived.

For months the President has been talking about how bad the economy was when he became president, how intransigent was the Iraq war, how befuddling Afghanistan seemed. Sometimes he mentioned his predecessor by name, sometimes he didn't. But whether implicit or explicit, the message was clear: I may be a great communicator, but I am also an unlucky inheritor.

For months the press and public accepted the argument. The President did inherit a mess of trouble, or the trouble of multiple messes (though, in fairness, Mr. Obama asked for the job - and knew what he was getting when his wishes came true). The result was that Mr. Obama had a honey of a honeymoon - longer, it might be said, than most presidents enjoy.

Gerald R. Ford had a torrid American honeymoon but it lasted only a month and ended with a jilt and a jolt in September, 1974: His pardon of Richard M. Nixon, a decision that for all practical purposes ended the Watergate period but shattered the love affair Americans had with a new president whose openness (and willingness to toast his own English muffins, a curious totem of the era) had beguiled the public. It is possible to argue that Bill Clinton's honeymoon was so brief that it actually ended before he was inaugurated.

Now, as the Obama era unfolds, there increasingly is less patience for the familiar arguments that the war in Iraq started in obfuscation, that the conflict in Afghanistan was ignored for too long, that a lethal combination of lax regulation and laissez-faire fever pushed the economy to the brink, and that Iran spun out of control while Americans focused on lesser threats in the region. All that might be true, but it can no longer be part of the Obama repertoire.

Several factors combined to produce the president's Frank Capra moment.

One of them surely was the 66-page report on Afghanistan produced by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, whose recommendations for the war in Central Asia would put the Obama Administration on a far different footing. The McChrystal report is forcing Mr. Obama to make a decision - carry on or change course - and thus already has helped brand the war as Mr. Obama's, a notion that was fed last week when PBS aired a Frontline show called "Obama's War. "

One of the factors was the President's reappointment of Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve. That gave Mr. Obama's seal of approval to the prescription, written primarily in the Bush years, for ending the recession. The result is that the Bernanke way is no longer the Bush way, but the Obama way.

So, too, with the recent meeting with top Iranian officials on the nuclear-weapons issue. Iran is officially an Obama problem, not an inheritance from Mr. Bush.

We are, of course, familiar with transfers of power; they are a much-studied aspect of the American presidency. But the transfer of burden is far less well examined and is perhaps far more illuminating about the nature and character of a president.

For now that the Bush era is in the past and we are clearly in the Obama years, the President faces new tests, offering us new opportunities for reaping new insights about the man who occupies the Oval Office. Indeed, moments like this are unusually revelatory. At the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy admitted a mistake and changed course. At the Gulf of Tonkin, Johnson hunkered down and continued the direction the Kennedy administration had set out. At those moments, we learned something important about both men.

This is the context in which to view President Obama's much-maligned decision to change the nation's anti-missile strategy by abandoning missiles and radar in Poland and the Czech Republic in favor of a sea-based defense.

Now the President faces similar questions about Afghanistan and Iraq - and about the American economy at home.

The most urgent need in a jobs recession is the creation of new employment, and last week the White House struggled with an emerging problem: the increasing melding of joblessness and hopelessness. The President is considering stimulus tax credits or accounting changes that might spur hiring. Also being examined: lengthier unemployment assistance and perhaps even health benefits for the long-term unemployed.

With unemployment at 9.8 percent, the highest in a quarter-century, it no longer is enough to blame President Bush. It's Mr. Obama's problem now. He's past his Frank Capra moment.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com



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