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Obama Is President, But Is He A Leader?

David Brooks had an interesting column in The New York Times Monday about what he sees as the deficiencies in Barack Obama’s leadership style:

In 1961, John F. Kennedy gave an Inaugural Address that did enormous damage to the country. It defined the modern president as an elevated, heroic leader who issues clarion calls in the manner of Henry V at Agincourt. Ever since that speech, presidents have felt compelled to live up to that grandiose image, and they have done enormous damage to themselves and the nation. That speech gave a generation an unrealistic, immature vision of the power of the presidency.

President Obama has renounced that approach. Far from being a heroic quasi Napoleon who runs the country from the Oval Office, Obama has been a delegator and a convener. He sets the agenda, sketches broad policy outlines and then summons some Congressional chairmen to dominate the substance. This has been the approach with the stimulus package, the health care law, the Waxman-Markey energy bill, the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill and, so far, the Biden commission on the budget.

As president, Obama has proved to be a very good Senate majority leader — convening committees to do the work and intervening at the end.

All his life, Obama has worked in nonhierarchical institutions — community groups, universities, legislatures — so maybe it is natural that he has a nonhierarchical style. He tends to see issues from several vantage points at once, so maybe it is natural that he favors a process that involves negotiating and fudging between different points of view.

Still, I would never have predicted he would be this sort of leader. I thought he would get into trouble via excessive self-confidence. Obama’s actual governing style emphasizes delegation and occasional passivity. Being led by Barack Obama is like being trumpeted into battle by Miles Davis. He makes you want to sit down and discern.

But this is who Obama is, and he’s not going to change, no matter how many liberals plead for him to start acting like Howard Dean.

The Obama style has advantages, but it has served his party poorly in the current budget fight. He has not educated the country about the debt challenge. He has not laid out a plan, aside from one vague, hyperpoliticized speech. He has ceded the initiative to the Republicans, who have dominated the debate by establishing facts on the ground.

David Frum is, if anything, harsher than Brooks in his assessment of Obama and notes that Brooks has given Republicans their best argument against Obama:

Brooks has laid out the most useful and effective critique of Barack Obama for Republicans in 2012: The job has overwhelmed the man. He’s not an alien, he’s not a radical. He’s just not the person the country needs. He’s not tough enough, he’s not imaginative enough, and he’s not determined enough.

In the throes of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, the president ran out of ideas sometime back in 2009.

In the face of opposition, Obama goes passive. The mean Republicans refused votes on his Federal Reserve nominees and Obama … did nothing. Would Ronald Reagan have done nothing? FDR? Lyndon Johnson?

With unemployment at 10% and interest rates at 1%, the president got persuaded that it was debt and interest that trumped growth and jobs as Public Issue #1.

(…)

Message for Republicans: you don’t have to hate Obama to be disappointed in him. In fact hating him probably blinds you to the most important ways in which Americans have been disappointed.

Brooks and Frum both have a point, I think. From the start of his Presidency, Barack Obama has displayed a leadership style that, well, displays a distinct lack of leadership. His first major legislative achievement, the 2009 stimulus package, was really just a hodgepodge of Democratic pet projects that had been sitting around for most of the Bush Administration. The piece of domestic legislation that he said would be the cornerstone of his first term in office, health care reform, was drafted by, and guided through Congress by, the leadership in the Senate and the House, whatever role the President played in the process was behind closed doors. This didn’t serve Democrats well for,w hile they got their bill passed, they raised so much ire in the process that they gave rise to the movement that led to their loss of the House in 2010.

After the mid-term elections, the President largely ignored the report that had been issued by the very bipartisan commission on the National Debt that he had called together. Then, as the lame duck session threatened to collapse, he essentially gave Republicans everything they wanted in negotiations over extending the Bush tax cuts. In the meantime, he’s essentially  been passive as the economy continues to stagnate and people start to wonder where the jobs are going to come from. Instead, he’s let the Republicans define the economic debate and made massive budget cuts a foregone conclusion at this point.

Leaving aside the merits of any of the President’s policy decisions, one has to2 admit that this isn’t exactly an example of a President leading. Instead, he lets events, and people, lead him, a tendency one can clearly see in the Administrations reaction to the unfolding Arab Spring and the events in Libya, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. None of it should be a surprise, however. Barack Obama did not come to the Presidency with extensive leadership experience. Instead, he started his political career as a back bench state legislator in Illinois, part of the Chicago machine in a body dominated by Democrats where compromise with the opposing party wasn’t necessary. During his brief time in the United States Senate., he didn’t really distinguish himself as a leader in the body (not that he really ever had an opportunity to). Nobody should be surprised that, when he became President, he failed to be a leader in the FDR/JFK/Reagan/Clinton mold.

One thing this brings into question, of course, is the entire idea of electing people to the Presidency who have only legislative experience. Prior to Obama, the last President who fit that description was Kennedy, before that it was Harding. Clearly, Kennedy was the exception to what seems like a general rule that legislators typically don’t have the leadership skills necessary to be the type of “big” President that Americans still seem to prefer. For Republicans, this means it makes more sense to look at the Governors in their 2012 field than the Congressmen (and women). It also means that, rather than saying he’s Un-American, the most effective line of attack against the President in 2012 may well be that, while he is President, he’s no leader.

 

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. hey norm says:

    Brooks didn’t have any fresh ideas so he pulled something up from three months ago?
    I wonder what OBL thinks about Obama’s leadership style?
    You see – you can stand on a pile of rubble with a bull-horn and thump your chest and make a bunch of promises…or you can stfu and just do it. I understand most people, especially so-called republicans, like the former. I’ll take the latter every time.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 6

  2. Tano says:

    I find it a bit odd that Brooks begins by roundly criticizing the prevailing notion of presidential leadership, as it derives from JFK’s inaugural. Obama, he tells us, has rejected that vision.
    This is supposed to be a good thing, given the premise he laid out.

    What Brooks does not mention, is that Obama’s leadership style is essentially the same as Ronald Reagan’s. In fact, Obama went out of his way, before the election, to praise Reagan’s leadership style (not his policies of course), and that caused him much grief amongst Democrats. I don’t think that Obama tried to fashion his approach on Reagan’s – I agree with Brooks that these styles are reflective of basic personality types, and probably cannot be changed much.

    Brooks, I am sure, is still a fan of Reagan. Frum just seems oblivious, as if Reagan would somehow never tolerate losing a particular battle to the Congressional Democrats of his time.

    There is always this problem with political writing. There are agendas, deep foundational agendas – pro-this, anti-that, which color the writer’s unconscious thought processes even when making an attempt at objective analysis. So in the end, these types of articles amount to simply another fancy way to hurl insults at your opponents.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  3. Steven Donegal says:

    So David Brooks, David Frum and Doug Mataconis don’t like Obama’s leadership style. Not much surprise there. What none of these analyses focus on is that, despite this lack of leadership, Obama has gotten quite a bit done in 2 1/2 years. I expect he’ll get enough done in the next 1 1/2 years that he will be re-elected so that Brooks, Frum and Mataconis can whine about his leadership style for another four years.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 3

  4. MBunge says:

    I love how we’ve gone from having Obama’s negotiating skill criticized by people who’ve never negotiated anything more important than the price of a lamp at a garage sale to having his leadership approach criticized by people who’ve never led anything bigger or more complex than a Boy Scout troop.

    Mike

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  5. hey norm says:

    In the meantime a republican judge has ruled the ACA constitutional. Just keep leading from behind Mr. President, just keep leading from behind.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  6. mantis says:

    The mean Republicans refused votes on his Federal Reserve nominees and Obama … did nothing. Would Ronald Reagan have done nothing? FDR? Lyndon Johnson?

    Reagan, FDR, and Johnson were presidents during very different times than now.

    I’m very frustrated with Republicans total obstruction of the appointments process and deliberate handicapping of the executive, but I understand Obama’s reticence to make a huge fight out of it. The public largely doesn’t understand, nor care about appointments or the appointment process. Use of the bully pulpit on this issue would be futile, and a waste of political capital, such as it is. The problem is the filibuster, and the president can’t change that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  7. PD Shaw says:

    Instead, he started his political career as a back bench state legislator in Illinois, part of the Chicago machine in a body dominated by Democrats where compromise with the opposing party wasn’t necessary.

    Worse than that; for most of his state career Republicans were in charge; that’s like being responsible for the barbecue at a vegetarian picnic.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  8. ponce says:

    Obama is smart enough to avoid overexposure.

    And should we be surprised that wingnuts like Frum and Brooks don’t like Obama?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  9. Rick Almeida says:

    So David Brooks, David Frum and Doug Mataconis don’t like Obama’s leadership style. Not much surprise there. What none of these analyses focus on is that, despite this lack of leadership, Obama has gotten quite a bit done in 2 1/2 years. I expect he’ll get enough done in the next 1 1/2 years that he will be re-elected so that Brooks, Frum and Mataconis can whine about his leadership style for another four years.

    I agree with a lot of this, but as someone who generally supports the president I really thought Obama would have been a better leader of public opinion. I didn’t expect a warrior or firebrand, but I expected he would take a much more direct role in steering public opinion. I’ve been consistently disappointed in that regard.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  10. Tsar Nicholas says:

    On the bright side, however, he’s pretty good at reading a teleprompter.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  11. mattb says:

    First of all I take issue with this passage:

    All his life,Obama has worked in nonhierarchical institutions — community groups, universities, legislatures — so maybe it is natural that he has a nonhierarchical style.

    I’m not sure what universities Mr. Brooks is familiar with, but in my experience the modern US university is as hierarchical (if not more so) than the average American mid-sized corporation.

    Beyond this, it seems like there are two questions here:
    1. Soft vs. Hard Leadership
    2. Communication

    Without a doubt, Obama is a soft leader. And, as Andrew Sullivan and others have pointed out in the past, he uses a “community organizing style” — let the community members (legislators) talk themselves out and run out of steam, and then get the legislation through (see repeal of DADT and Healthcare reform). He’s also very much a techno/bureaucrat, trusting experts to be, well, experts.

    What it seems like Brooks and Frum are pining for is the “Hard Leadership” style of GW — i.e. I’m the “decider.” Ironically, when GW entered office he framed himself as a CEO style president. To the degree that he, like Steve Jobs, ran on gut, ego, and confidence, then I buy into it. But as I remember GW promised to always work from the advice of the best of the best (ironically, what Obama is now doing).

    Where Obama has failed is not so much in leadership, but communication. Which seems the tragic irony for someone who was as well know for rhetorical skills as he is. This is the thing that most differentiates him from Regan in terms of leadership — Regan was far better a communicating the message across the board. Obama has been great at inspiring, but woefully short on day-to-day messaging.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  12. Steven Donegal says:

    I didn’t expect a warrior or firebrand, but I expected he would take a much more direct role in steering public opinion. I’ve been consistently disappointed in that regard.

    I agree with this. That said, when he wants to roll it out like he did today on tax increases, he is pretty darn good.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  13. As the old saying goes, “When you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”

    What impresses me about these analyses is less what answer they settle on to explain the bafflement that is Obama, but the fact that, when taken together with the many other commentati who have pondered the same basic question, they all have come up with a very wide variety of answers.

    Which is to say, no one is able to figure out just what makes Obama tick. This means, I think, that’s it’s likely that Obama doesn’t know, either.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  14. G.A.Phillips says:

    Obama is smart enough to avoid overexposure.

    LOLZZZ!!!!!!! NOW THATS SOME FUNNY CRAP!!!!!!!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  15. george says:

    I always thought politicians (including the President) were supposed to be our representatives (ie our employees), rather than leaders. Wasn’t that the problem with monarchy?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  16. Alex Knapp says:

    Far from being a heroic quasi Napoleon who runs the country from the Oval Office, Obama has been a delegator and a convener. He sets the agenda, sketches broad policy outlines and then summons some Congressional chairmen to dominate the substance. This has been the approach with the stimulus package, the health care law, the Waxman-Markey energy bill, the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill and, so far, the Biden commission on the budget.

    As president, Obama has proved to be a very good Senate majority leader — convening committees to do the work and intervening at the end.

    All his life, Obama has worked in nonhierarchical institutions — community groups, universities, legislatures — so maybe it is natural that he has a nonhierarchical style. He tends to see issues from several vantage points at once, so maybe it is natural that he favors a process that involves negotiating and fudging between different points of view.

    Try as I might, I can’t figure out what’s wrong with this. This is ideal leadership for a free society.

    God knows I don’t like everything Obama as done, but if the biggest complaint you can make about his leadership style is: “doesn’t lead like a tinpot dictator”, then I think I can live with that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  17. PD Shaw says:

    mattb, I would add that law firms and the Illinois legislature tend to be very heirarchal. The pointed issue is that as an associate, a back bencher, and I would even add a lecturer operating outside of the tenure system, does not get much of opportunity to excercise leadership. Thus, the focus is going to be on community organizing.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  18. G.A.Phillips says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xwm9G0Ut6lQ&feature=player_embedded

    Comments on Obama’s leadership style and a call for transparency, action and seriousness.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  19. mattb says:

    The pointed issue is that as an associate, a back bencher, and I would even add a lecturer operating outside of the tenure system, does not get much of opportunity to excercise leadership. Thus, the focus is going to be on community organizing.

    Actually, I completely agree with that — I wish Brooks had written it that way.

    That leads to a different question — what’s the difference between organizing and leadership? Or maybe more importantly, if this is a vend diagram, what falls outside of the large amount of overlap between the two?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  20. ponce says:

    LOLZZZ!!!!!!! NOW THATS SOME FUNNY CRAP!!!!!!!

    I did see Obama talking to day telling the Senators from the traitor states to start acting like Americans.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  21. G.A.Phillips says:

    I did see Obama talking to day telling the Senators from the traitor states to start acting like Americans.

    51+52?53+54?55+56?57+58? lol…..or do you mean the ones like mine that changed from blue to red over night and gave the rest of us hope because of his leadership style?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  22. ponce says:

    do you mean the ones like mine…

    By traitor state I mean South Carolina.

    I did see Obama leads Palin in Alaska in a recent poll…is that what your mumbling about colors was referring to?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

  23. sam says:

    One of the criticisms of Obama during his tenure at the Harvard Law Review, leveled by those on the left at the law school, was, essentially, that he hung out too much with conservatives at the school and was too conciliatory in his approach to the controversies roiling the school then.

    It’s the man’s style to try and find a compromise. I think he genuinely believes that if you deal in good faith, you will be dealt with in good faith. If he has a failing it’s that, that naive belief in the power of being reasonable. But I think he has limits, and when limit is reached, and he truly sees the Republicans for the obstructing SOBs they are, Brooks and Frum might wished they’d, rhetorically anyway, wished for something else in a president.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  24. PD Shaw says:

    sam, I think Obama’s “greatest” legislative achievements in Illinois were in working across the aisle with Republicans to pass ethics reform. (this is the one area, besides tax increases, that essentially require bi-partisanship) I place “greatest” in quotation marks because it was the type of mild reform that both sides would agree too, but Obama was clearly picked because he was a friendly person that could work well with others across the aisle (while taking directions from above). That’s why I would have expected him to be more involved in the deal-making than he has been.

    I sort of go back to GW Bush; sometimes the talents you exhibit in the closed political dynamics of your home state don’t play as well at the national level.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

  25. G.A.Phillips says:

    I did see Obama leads Palin in Alaska in a recent poll…is that what your mumbling about colors was referring to?

    Naw, I was making a 58 states joke and bragging on my home state for coming to it’s senses.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  26. michael reynolds says:

    In real terms he’s already been a transformative president by passing health care reform. DADT is important but not transformative in itself. The Afghan surge is small potatoes historically, likewise the stimulus, and Libya is a blip. Oddly he’ll probably be remembered for GM more. And he’ll be remembered for some other things that began during the last days of Bush 2 and that Obama carried forward.

    I share the frustration with Obama’s style. It doesn’t surprise me, but it frustrates me. But that’s because I’m immature and shouldn’t be trusted to run anything. Obama is extraordinarily mature, like a great white wine when what I want is whiskey.

    I don’t think he was played by Republicans into focusing on deficits, I think he understands that there’s not a hell of a lot a POTUS can really do about jobs, while the budget is in his area of responsibility.

    I think he’s a dutiful guy, doing what he thinks is best for the country regardless of politics. In that sense he’s ruthless, and that, too, does not surprise me. He tends to get what he wants, but you don’t see him doing it, and he doesn’t care if you see him doing it. He’s a strange one for American politics: 90% do-the-right-thing and only 10% blowhard. But that’s a hard sell in a country that loves Transformers movies. Americans are not about subtle.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

  27. ponce says:

    and bragging on my home state for coming to it’s senses.

    Which state is that, GA?

    Denial?

    *rimshot*

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  28. G.A.Phillips says:

    Denial is a river in the caliphate, not a state ponce:) I live Wisconsin, the home of the Honey Badger.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  29. G.A.Phillips says:

    lol, now the Reply button shows up… Oh…and edit:) so no we can erase stuff when we get mad and say something extra stupid? Could have used that sucker for the last 6 or 7 years around here.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  30. Herb says:

    Our previous president showed tremendous leadership, but unfortunately he also showed us that “leadership” is not a virtue amongst lemmings.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  31. ponce says:

    I live Wisconsin, the home of the Honey Badger.

    Um GA,

    You know Obama’s doing great in Wisconsin since your Koch Whore governor started his assualt on the middle class citizens of your state, right?

    Obama leads Mitt Romney by 12 points at 51-39, Newt Gingrich by 18 points at 53-35, and Sarah Palin by 19 points at 55-36 in the state.

    http://publicpolicypolling.blogspot.com/2011/05/wisconsin-looks-good-for-obama.html

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  32. Lonemusketeer says:

    You make me laugh. . .re-elected, hah, hah, hah!!!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  33. Lonemusketeer says:

    @michael reynolds: He is not mature. He’s a psycho of which you will find out. He’s a complete total fraud. You allow yourself to be blind.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  34. Lonemusketeer says:

    @michael reynolds: What do you mean there is not a lot he can do about jobs. How about creating a climate conducive to investment and job growth? Instead he and his minions continue to overwhelm the free market with regulations and taxes so that job creation is stifled. You really don’t understand this socialist administration, do you? Wake up; all the evidence is right in front of you.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  35. Lonemusketeer says:

    @PD Shaw: Obama has had no great achievements other than defrauding the American public, not great but it was an achievement. He will burn in hell.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 3

  36. Lonemusketeer says:

    @sam: You are naive. That is one of Obama’s greatest strengths is wearing two faces. He’s lying to us about who he is and what he really cares about. “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.” — Hawthorne, “The Scarlet Letter”

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  37. Lonemusketeer says:

    @Herb: Better a lemming than a cockroach.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  38. Lonemusketeer says:

    @mattb: There should be no overlap. Community organizing is propaganda that divides people. Leadership knows how to bring people together for a common cause. Community organizing is a socialist/communist mechanism which has spewed nothing but failed leadership.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  39. mattb says:

    I foresee Lonemusketeer having a long and productive tenure as an OTB commentor, full of bright insight and thoughtful contributions….

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  40. anjin-san says:

    The GOP leadership style reminds me a lot of how we acted as freshman football players (smug, self-centered, bullying assholes). Pass. All these years later, I am still a little embarrassed to think about it – certainly not good in alleged adults who wield real power.

    I will take what Obama is selling any day of the week.

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  41. michael reynolds says:

    @Lonemusketeer: Show me the taxes Obama has increased. I’ll wait.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0