WASHINGTON -- There were so many biting analyses of President Obama during the government shutdown that one might fill a notebook in order to list them.
He's too much of a legal scholar -- that's why he doesn't shout down the Republicans. He doesn't like to carry anything through himself; he prefers, as with health care, to let his followers in the Congress present a plan. He really believes that man is a rational being.
But my favorite criticism of Barack Obama -- and it's really just my taste, because I can't find any final proof for it -- is that he deliberately stood back, said almost nothing, and just let the Republicans play out their silly and self-destructive drama.
His brief speech on Thursday, after Wednesday night's moment-to-midnight vote by the Congress, certainly didn't show any personal pique or fury. Like a gentleman, he laid out the three efforts he would pursue going forward: to work toward a balanced budget, to fix the broken immigration system and to pass a farm bill.
As to the shutdown of the government, the president said, "The American people are completely fed up with Washington." The shutdown was "yet another self-inflicted crisis -- and for what?"
As to the question of whether his passively productive personality played into our government's recent drama, I defer to a recent book by Harvard scholar Joseph Nye Jr.
There are two kinds of presidents, he suggests, "transformational and transactional." Both are important in their eras, witness transformational leaders such as President Woodrow Wilson with the League of Nations, FDR with World War II and Ronald Reagan with the Cold War.
Yet, he argues in "Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era," the transactional presidents, who are out to manage the country and the world rather than transform them, as Obama appears to be attempting, can often be both more effective and almost certainly more ethical. It will surprise many Americans that two presidents he singles out are Dwight Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush, the transactional leaders at the top of his list (and also two of my favorites).
"Sometimes the best presidential decisions are decisions not to act," the Financial Times wrote, reviewing the new book. One might note Ike refusing to enter land wars in Asia, and Bush refusing to "dance on the wall" in Berlin, thus making possible the freedom of Eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Unfortunately, we cannot know whether Obama's passivity these last two weeks of the shutdown was the result of some profound pounding of the political philosophy books (What would Nietzsche say about Ted Cruz?), or whether he was perhaps just sleepy. Someday the historians will tell all.
Meanwhile, there is much material for humor in these dramatic last days -- not to speak of that epic night in the Congress, when the Republicans who had sworn on their mothers' Bibles not to allow Americans to have the medical care they enjoy, barely mentioned health care. One starts to giggle just reading the papers.
Imagine Karl Rove in The Wall Street Journal writing that "there's plenty of blame to go around for the chaos in Washington, but at the top of the list is the absence of presidential leadership." (This, after all the Republican jabs at Obama's leadership!)
Or Larry Fink, chief executive of BlackRock, warning the shouting and mocking Republicans, "If you are a debtor nation, your job is to make sure your creditors like you." (Perhaps Fink was thinking of the way the Chinese are now talking about "the Chinesization of the world economy"?)
But, not surprisingly, the most memorable quote belongs to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who, from all we now know about him after his 21 hours of senseless filibuster, would have been a great contestant in those long dance tournaments in the '20s and '30s. "What the focus should be is on making Washington, D.C., listen to the American people and respond to the very real harms that Obamacare is causing to millions of people." (What can one possibly add?)
In short, it may seem that there were, as it is popular to say, "no winners and no losers," but that is a comment common to losers throughout history.
The Republicans lost big. They picked the wrong approach, carried it through disastrously, targeted policies that the American people, by huge majorities, want; caused an estimated loss of $24 million in the economy and made the U.S. a laughingstock across the world. They made people wonder whether the dollar should remain the international currency, and seriously harmed Americans' own confidence in their government after the Obama administration had begun to build it up again.
The Democrats won big, but more discreetly. Hardly anyone knew they were around these last few months; barely any policy speeches were given, voters already knowing their preferences; and the party itself emerged more as the moderate party most Americans are seeking.
We don't know what comes next, but we do know what just happened. Poor Speaker John Boehner said, as it all ended, "We fought the good fight. We just didn't win."
Amen to that!