During some of the darker moments of his presidential campaign, Barack Obama would say, "I'm skinny, but I'm tough." Facing a two-day crucible over how to respond to intemperate remarks by General Stanley McChrystal and his aides published in Rolling Stone magazine, Obama showed just how tough and smart he can be. By replacing Afghanistan commander McChrystal with General David Petraeus, the nation's single most visible, popular and respected active military officer, Obama turned what could have been a crippling blow into one of the strongest moments of his presidency to date.
Obama delivered a statement in the Rose Garden on Wednesday afternoon that was firm and strict but also generous, even gracious. While he retained the cool tone that has often been criticized during the BP oil-spill crisis, he was neither remote nor bloodless. By going out of his way to speak warmly of McChrystal's public service, Obama extended his hand to a military community that is still wary of him. And famously intolerant of shabby internal disputes, he took the opportunity to shift the focus from the melodramatic to the strategic: his commitment to victory in Afghanistan.
But getting Petraeus to step down from his larger regional command and focus on Afghanistan was Obama's most presidential moment. It gave the nearly decade-old Afghan mission its best chance at continuity and silenced even Obama's most outspoken GOP critics, from House leader John Boehner to truculent Fox News commentators. Afghanistan will continue to pose formidable military and political problems for Obama, but by acting in a way that was smart, fast and tough and doing what he thought was right he turned a difficult situation into a memorable one. There might be other definitions of leadership, but that's a pretty good one.