Gwen’s Take: McChrystal and the Gift of 20/20 Hindsight

BY Gwen Ifill  June 25, 2010 at 10:03 AM EDT

Several of us had a debate going on Wednesday morning. Would the president fire Stan McChrystal? Would he leave him in charge because change would be too risky? Or would he kick the can down the road and replace him at some future point?

The debate was good-natured, innocent and kind of silly – especially since most of us, in the end, guessed wrong.

Hindsight is a marvelous thing at moments like these. And it turns out if we had paid any attention at all to what we know, have reported, and have read about President Obama, we would have known to bet on Gen. McChrystal’s firing.

The things we know fall into three main categories of insight:

– Mr. Obama plays basketball.

I’m enough of a round ball fan to boo the Lakers and to know how physical that game can be. Elbows are thrown, hips are jutted, and legs and arms go crashing to the boards on a regular basis. If you are sitting near the court, you can hear the trash being talked and it is not pretty. But any serious player has got to be willing to follow talk with action or he will be jeered.

Now think about what had to have gone through the president’s mind as he read an article which amounted to a flagrant foul committed by his star center. Any self-respecting coach would have had to bench a player like that.

  • Mr. Obama works out, like, every day.

This requires discipline. Anyone who is that religious about routine respects it in others. Gen. McChrystal’s job was to execute a complicated counterinsurgency strategy that is not exactly going well. That requires commitment to a goal that includes working with people you may not particularly like. Anyone who covered the Obama campaign knows it was remarkably leak free. You are either on the team, Obama loyalists have told me, or you are off. There is not a lot of room for in between. That’s too undisciplined.

  • The polls.

The latest surveys show the president’s popularity slowly and steadily shrinking. As with all such polls, it helps to look at the internal numbers to get a sense of how perilous things have gotten, and an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll out this week shows three disturbing things for the White House. Forty four percent of those polled say they relate to the president “only a little” or “not really.”

That’s the highest number who say they don’t relate to him since he took office. And even though he gets his highest marks for being easygoing, likeable and compassionate, he gets his lowest on decisiveness and ability to handle a crisis. No president can succeed if he is not seen as a leader. President George W. Bush’s popularity slid precipitously when the Iraq war lost its backing. And Mr. Obama has watched confidence in his presidency dissipate at about the same rate as oil has been escaping in the Gulf.

If the war in Afghanistan was doing well, Gen. McChrystal may have survived. It’s tougher to replace someone who is indisputably doing a good job, even if his staff is less than circumspect. But since the nation’s most popular general, David Petraeus, was standing by and willing to serve, changing generals now appears to have been a no brainer.

Plus, after weeks of standing helplessly by as the nation’s largest environmental disaster continues to unfold on his watch, it must have felt good to be able to do something about a problem for a change.

This entry is cross-posted on the Washington Week website. Tune in on Fridays as Gwen Ifill and her panel of guests examine the complicated relationship between the commander-in-chief, his military officers, and civilian leaders during wartime and the politics behind President Obama’s decision to return Petraeus to the battlefield to execute the administration’s Afghanistan strategy.