On January 28, 2009, barely a week into his presidency, Barack Obama met with the U.S. military’s top generals and admirals on their own turf, inside “the tank,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s conference room on the second floor of the Pentagon. A senior official recalled the new president as “remarkably confident—composed, relaxed, but also deferential, not trying to act too much the commander in chief.” Obama walked around the room, introducing himself to everyone; he thanked them and the entire armed forces for their service and sacrifice; then he sat down for a freewheeling discussion of the world’s challenges, region by region, crisis by crisis. He was “the man in full,” the official said, fluent on every issue, but more than that—a surprise to the officers, who had been leery of this young, inexperienced Democrat—he displayed a deep streak of realism.
At one point, Obama remarked that he was not the sort of person who drives down a street wishing he could park wherever he likes. If he saw an open spot, even one that required some tricky parallel parking, he would be fine with squeezing into it. Obama’s meaning was clear: he had been dealt a bad hand (two unpopular wars, alienated allies, the deepest recession in decades), but he would find a way to deal with the world as it was.
Seven years later, many officers and defense officials, including some who were so impressed with Obama at the start, look back at his presidency as following a different style of governing. They laud the historic accomplishments—the Iran nuclear deal, the opening to Cuba, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the prevention (so far) of another terrorist attack on American soil—and they acknowledge that he has often tried to make the best of bad choices. But too often, they say, he has avoided taking action, waiting for conditions to get better—circling the block and, in his own metaphor, waiting for a better