The 2011 Teddy Awards

Our columnist announces this year's picks for political courage

  • Photo-Illustration by Hieronymus for TIME

    It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again ... who spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly."

    After a year's hiatus caused by a comprehensive void of politicians who dared greatly in 2010, my annual awards, the Teddys--inspired by Theodore Roosevelt, whose quote above gave this column its name--are back. Not that 2011 was exactly a banner year for political courage; indeed, the legislative horror show on Capitol Hill continued to produce vast quantities of whatever you want to call the absence of statesmanship. But there are some heroes and heroines for us poor citizens to celebrate.

    Barack Obama leads the list, not so much for his domestic policy, which was sane but unsuccessful, as for his performance as Commander in Chief. This was not expected to be a strength when he came to office, but it is a role that he inhabits with skill, prudence and confidence. Obama went against the military brass on three important matters this year--Libya, Afghanistan and the raid that killed Osama bin Laden--and was right each time. The brass wanted no part of Libya, but Obama dragged them in--in a very limited way, with our NATO allies taking the lead--and achieved the desired result. The long-term future of Libya remains very much up for grabs, but Obama's mission--preventing a massacre in Benghazi and getting rid of Gaddafi--was accomplished efficiently. In Afghanistan the President went against the wishes of his superstar general David Petraeus and decided not to launch counterinsurgency operations in the country's difficult eastern region. Instead Obama announced, as promised, the beginnings of the drawdown of U.S. troops, while keeping the pressure on al-Qaeda and other miscreants in Pakistan. And the Commander in Chief insisted on having the Navy SEALs go in and take out bin Laden rather than ordering the compound bombed from the air. It was riskier, but the reward was a cache of documents that has enabled our intelligence operators to make major progress in the war against al-Qaeda.

    Vice President Joe Biden deserves a Teddy for having been right about Afghanistan all along--arguing that our purposes there should be limited to covert operations and training the Afghan army--and also for being the solid, sane voice of reason that he is. He is one of our most underappreciated public servants. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, a Biden-staff alumnus, also deserves a Teddy for helping frame and facilitate all the President's foreign policy decisions this year.

    Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a principled conservative Republican, deserves a Teddy for speaking out early, as a member of the Simpson-Bowles commission, in favor of increased revenue to help balance the budget. Coburn later repeated this act with the other members of the Senate's Gang of Six, all of whom also receive Teddys, for negotiating a long-term plan to reduce the federal deficit that includes short-term measures to boost the economy.

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