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The Strategy of Restraint: Obama's Discipline Trips and Traps Rivals

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Barack Obama is notable for his strategic breadth. From subtle suggestions to diversionary rhetoric to preemptive flourishes, there is, save for Bill Clinton, no other president of the modern era better adapted to the art and science of influence and strategy.

But what is becoming especially clear about Obama, and what elevates him above even Clinton (either Bill or Hillary, in fact), is his savvy for restraint. Consider Rep. Darrell Issa's pursuit of IRS profiling. These are baiting strategies by the California Republican that many commanders-in-chief would fight, not willing to let reputational swords swing and poll ratings plummet. But Obama & Co. have been willing to endure Issa's theater, almost as though they are laying traps. By whatever means, we now learn of the IRS's BOLO (Be On the Look Out) program that filters for liberal interests, too, and thus dulls the edge of Issa's axe as chairman of the House oversight and government reform committee. Was BOLO fabricated, then leaked, to countervail the revelation of IRS tea party profiling? Conspiracists will delight in and pursue the theory. Or was it held for dramatic effect, all to lure Obama's IRS detractors down a blind alley? This seems more plausible because, on balance, the effect is more embarrassing to GOP/Tea Party interests (and Issa) than to Obama. But it takes discipline, discretion and some silence to get there.

Consider, as another example of Obama's signature restraint, the strategies that underlie Secy. of State John Kerry's play for Edward Snowden's extradition. He has said, simply, that the U.S. wants the NSA leaker and would expect and appreciate the cooperation of Snowden's current sanctuarial sponsor, Moscow, to do the right thing. VP Joe Biden, Obama's surrogate-in-chief, has run a similar play with Snowden's contemplated landing spot, tiny Ecuador. To the country's colorful and unpredictable President, Rafael Correa, Biden has repeated the Kerry line: Snowden is ours to have, please. Obama critics have likened such pillow fighting as spineless. But does Correa, much less Vladimir Putin, need to be reminded of U.S. rights, its power or options? Kerry and Biden, on Obama's behalf, have in one move put Snowden's protectors on notice and neutralized their abilities to rebut.

FOX News business anchor, Neil Cavuto, mocks Barack Obama's detached demeanor: "Show some drama, Obama," he has waxed. But before pundits can accuse the president of being soft, they should first consider his skills at tripping and trapping those who hunt him. After five years of experience, they should be wise to this president's willingness to wait out then reverse attacks. There is much to Barack Obama's strategy signature and this, in part, is why he navigates the dramatics -- not for hiding from crises, not from fighting accusers, but in fact by allowing them to foment so that, later, he can point to his rival's overreactions and, by implication, confirm his steady command.

Obama's m.o. is no drama, indeed. But what his rivals mistake for inaction is, in fact, the footprint of a disciplined strategist, hunter and trapper of so many critics. Time will tell if he is as crafty on matters of Benghazi, PRISM or the DOJ-AP. But on these public fires, Obama seems willing to let them burn, perhaps for competitive advantage.