Obama Is President, But Is He A Leader?
Barack Obama's leadership style may be his undoing.
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.