03/08/2013 01:03 pm ET Updated May 08, 2013

The Suddenly Scrambling Obama

Quite a week for President Barack Obama. A week of reversing field after unforced White House errors and Republican intractability.

First there was his suddenly quieter and more realistic tone on the budget sequester, the latest over-hyped Beltway melodrama.

Then, after many weeks of demonization, came his sudden charm offensive with congressional Republicans.

Finally, after his administration's intransigence helped produce a new national star in Senator Rand Paul, there was a hint of some clarity in the still alarmingly murky situation around our drone strike policy.

* The fabled budget sequester, the latest chapter in Washingtonian government-by-melodramatic-crisis, is here. And it looks none too dramatic so far.

Not surprisingly, I never sensed a lot of panic about the sequester outside the hype-prone political and media classes.

Which, though he still has the rhetorical upper hand over Republicans, not exactly a feat these days, is a problem for Obama. He seems to have oversold the impact of $85 billion in automatic budget cuts, over half of which hit what is by far, which is to say several orders of magnitude, the most heavily funded military apparatus in the world.

As a result, he's had to throttle back the rhetoric dramatically from his dire forecasts of recent weeks.

* From crushing Republicans to charming Republicans.

Obama's public schedule is frequently not very helpful in discerning what his actual schedule is. But this week some Republicans started popping up on it. Now it turns out that he has been spending a great deal of time in a mostly private charm offensive with congressional Republicans.

Obama, trying a new tack on the sequester and overall fiscal fronts, has embarked on an extensive program of reaching out to Republican members of Congress, having privately had a number of them over a couple of evenings this week at the White House.

On Wednesday night, he even took a dozen Republican senators to dinner at the Jefferson Hotel, including his 2008 rival John McCain and McCain's fellow antagonist of new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and UN Ambassador Susan Rice, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham.

The Republican-bashing strategy crashed around the sequester. (In part because most of the public didn't buy the, if you will, Skyfall scenario.) Republicans didn't move and, in classic Washington fashion, nothing happened except that preordained by earlier autopilot.

So Obama is opting for something new. Does it make sense? We'll see. It would probably seem less necessary to the White House had it not oversold the sequester.

* A ray of light on drone policy.

There's even a ray of light shining on the still too murky drone policy. Following a dramatic and all-too-rare real filibuster on Wednesday, John Brennan was confirmed Thursday as the new director of the CIA on a 63 to 34 vote in the Senate. This came after Kentucky Senator Rand Paul finally got a direct answer from Attorney General Eric Holder to his question about whether, under our highly classified drone policy, an American citizen who is not engaged in a terrorist attack can be killed on American soil.

He or she cannot be executed by the government in such a situation. Why the administration couldn't say that the first few times it was asked is mysterious.

Paul launched an old-fashioned, for-real filibuster of CIA Director-designate John Brennan's confirmation in the Senate, citing the Obama administration's refusal to rule out a clandestinely-determined drone strike against an American citizen in the U.S. Paul acknowledges that he does not fear such an Obama order actually taking place but is troubled by the expansive powers being claimed in drone policy. The first-term senator was joined by several other conservative Republican senators and by liberal Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden.

Paul is out to shine a light on the very clandestine U.S. drone strike policies which, among many things, allow for the execution of American citizens abroad without any apparent due process beyond an anonymous star chamber proceeding which is anything but due process. Brennan was in large measure the architect of the drone policies in his role during Obama's first term as chief White House counter-terrorism advisor.

To be clear, as longtime readers know, I personally favor aggressive intelligence and special operations actions as part -- emphasis on part -- of an approach to dealing with transnational jihadism. Carefully targeted drone strikes play into that.

But at a certain point, drone strikes move from being carefully targeted to being a wholesale measure, likely creating more problems than they solve, fomenting widespread antipathy toward the U.S. and creating more recruits for jihadism than would otherwise exist. Given the veil of secrecy over it, it's hard to get objective data, but the strike program appears to have gone beyond the original rationale for it in terms of protecting the U.S. from transnational networks into more broadly going after people identified as Islamic radicals and the folks who are unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity.

How many of those people are actual threats to the United States? We don't know. I wonder if even the members of the responsible oversight body, the Senate Intelligence Committee, know.

Many more Americans are wondering about the drone program at the end of this week than were at its beginning. Which is not good for trust in Obama.

Why does Obama find himself scrambling? Too much inside-the-bubble thinking.

The sequester seemed a big deal to the Beltway chat class and Obama imagined that he could use the communications power of the presidency to bend public perceptions his way.

That would be no.

The White House also imagined that the bending of perception would force Republicans to bend his way.

Also no.

And it's hard to think of anything as "inside the bubble" as our drone program, determined by a secret group, conferring in secret, over secret information, with the public policy of the United States itself mostly secret.

So when a senator finally does something to shine a light on it, the effect is all the more dramatic.

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