It’s been a year since that exhilarating night last year when we heard the news that Barack Obama would be our next president. Over the course of that year, we have seen the leadership style of our new president.
Some say it is too early to tell; he’s only been in office for a little over nine months. But that’s a very literal view of leadership. Sure, we won’t know the outcomes of many of his decisions for years. We won’t know, for example, if the health care reform bill he ultimately signs really turns out to be “budget-neutral” ten years from now. But we can see how he let its budget-neutrality become the central theme of the debate and the way he has tacitly or explicitly supported, or failed to support, different aspects of that legislation, including ways of paying for it that either do or don’t come out of the pockets of working and middle class Americans – the same people who are just seeing their health care premiums raised by a third in anticipation by the health insurance companies. And in that sense, I think we have seen the clear outlines of Obama’s approach to leadership.
Genuine leadership means setting the agenda. It means taking tough stands. It means telling people the truth forcefully and evocatively in a way that makes them want to listen and act. It means drawing lines in the sand when you must, and refusing to compromise your values even if you have to compromise on some of the policies born of those values when you have no other choice. It means fighting for what you believe in and taking on powerful vested interests when people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake. And it means looking backward at the past so you don’t make the same mistakes, looking sideways at alternatives so you know your options, and using that vision to move the nation forward.
Leadership is a quality Barack Obama showed on the campaign trail. It is a quality he has failed to show as president.
Before readers start generating caveats and apologies, let me be clear. What he has done is to set a national agenda, and an ambitious one at that. He inherited an economy in tatters and a world doubting our commitment to values we have always embodied imperfectly but earnestly. He made it his first priority to pass a stimulus package and his second to take on health care reform. He signed some executive orders and bills into law that had languished on the desk of a conservative ideologue for years. And he has spoken to the world in a way that has restored their faith in America, at least for now.
But with the exception of his unique capacity to speak to people on the street in every corner of the globe (not an inconsequential skill in a global village), we need to evaluate his leadership not primarily in comparison to George W. Bush, who historians are already putting in the league of Ulysses S. Grant while inebriated, or even John McCain, but against the other Democrats who would have beaten McCain after the stock market crashed and the economy collapsed in mid September if Obama had not won the nomination. And that is where we start to get a picture of Obama as a leader.
The reality is that any Democrat would have followed the basic dictates of Keynesian economics in January 2009 and passed a large stimulus bill with the help of a heavily Democratic Congress – but no one else would have traded 200 billion in infrastructure and jobs for the chimera of bipartisanship that Obama oddly continues to pursue even while he remains unable to get a Republican vote on anything, no matter what concessions he offers. Every Democrat would have signed the Children’s Health bill (“S-CHIP”) and ended the immoral policy of denying children health care. And every other Democrat would have gone after Wall Street with a vigor we have not seen from this president, who prefers to place past and future crimes off limits under the banner of “look forward, not back,” and give out credit like candy to the banks at zero percent interest while allowing them to quadruple the interest on the credit cards of people who would still be employed and able to make their original payments had it not been for the malfeasance of the same banks that are now throwing them out of their homes.
We can argue policy specifics, but my point here is about process, not substance. Leadership is not about saying, “me, too.” It is not about waiting until Congress finally passes a hate crimes bill that makes slaughtering a gay kid a real crime, or waiting for Congress to end don’t-ask/don’t tell – when even the vast majority of the public is for it – and then pulling out your special “me, too” pen for the signing ceremony. Leadership is not making public pronouncements that simultaneously support and undercut the goal of requiring the health insurance industry to compete with at least one plan they don’t control.
The health care debate is a prototypical example. Obama could have told members of Congress when the health care fight began, “If the average American doesn’t have the same quality and range of options at the end of this process that you do, I will not sign any appropriations bill for next year that includes health insurance for federal employees, your family and mine included, because if it’s good enough for us, it’s good enough for the people we serve.” Had the president done that, he would have had populist sentiment at his back, not with its back up against Democrats over “death panels.” Blue Dogs and conservative Democrats would have been champions of populist reform, both because it would have been in the interest of their own family’s health and because it would have struck a resonant chord with their constituents. All it would have taken was a sharp condemnation of the health insurance industry – something he ultimately ended up having to do anyway after they decided his plan was no longer in their interest – and what has led to a recent shift in the Democrats’ favor on health care reform.
Am I sure that he could have mobilized populist sentiment to mobilize support for health care reform, or is that armchair, 20-20 hindsight punditry? Yes. I polled it 18 months ago, and the idea of the public getting the same quality of care as their elected representatives was wildly popular with everyone, right, left, and center.
It would be nice to see from the president a little less Rodney King – “Why can’t we all get along?” – and a little more Martin Luther King, who wasn’t interested in compromising on 3/5 of a man or 3/5 of a vote – and who wouldn’t have sat on the sidelines waiting to declare victory upon insuring 3/5 of the people who can’t afford health insurance. When the Senate sent its fifth and final health care bill out committee, the president lavished praise on one person – Republican Senator Olympia Snow, apparently for failing to obstruct the process – who promptly noted that her support was only temporary. The president’s highest-level surrogates then fanned out on the Sunday morning shows to demonstrate his staunch commitment to equivocation on whether the health insurance industry needs some healthy competition to bring costs down and guarantee high quality, affordable care.
This, in microcosm, is the essence of the President’s approach to leadership – Obamaprise – the art of compromising when you don’t have to. The goal is not to get the best possible bill, to fulfill his campaign pledges to the people who elected him, or to fulfill values to which he is deeply committed, whatever they seem to be when the dust settles on his latest moving speech. The goal is to find someone with whom to compromise, whether it’s the pharmaceutical industry, the health insurance industry, or Senate Republicans on health care; the energy industry and the “clean coal” lobby on climate change; or the banks lavishing their latest set of outrageous bonuses on their executives for another Heckuva-Job-Bernanke year.
The president is fortunate that Martin Luther King did not share his conflict-averse approach to leadership, or Obama himself would be sitting in the middle of a bus somewhere, not on Air Force One, waiting for the day when someone would forcefully take a stand to repeal a Solomonic compromise between those who demanded that blacks sit on the back of the bus and those who demanded that they sit, like whites, wherever they want, and someone came up with the perfect Obamaprise: let them sit in the middle.
Leadership is not searching for the golden mean between what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s true and what’s false, what the Democratic majority in both Houses of Congress and the people who elected them to run the country believe after eight dismal years of Bush Republicanism and what Chuck Grassley or Olympia Snowe finds aesthetically or financially appealing.
We were lucky Abraham Lincoln did not invite Jefferson Davis into his cabinet to insure that he had a “team of rivals.”
We were lucky FDR famously “welcomed the hatred” of those who had plunged the nation into the Great Depression because that freed him to regulate them.
We were lucky Lyndon Johnson did not let the knowledge that he was handing the South to the Republicans for at least a generation by signing the Civil Rights Acts deter him from the dictates of his uncompromised conscience.
President Obama needs to reflect on whatever is driving his compromised approach to leadership. He will no doubt accomplish many good things in his four or eight years in office, in part because there is so much damage from the preceding administration to undo, and with a Republican Party in complete disarray, he will no doubt accomplish incremental change we can believe in if that’s really what he wants to take to the voters in 2012.
But if he does not change course, he is on the path to being known as the first black president – nothing more, nothing less – a solid caretaker on the order of Dwight Eisenhower, who tinkered around the edges of the ideology of the last visionary president, FDR, the way Obama is tinkering around the edges of the last game-changing president, Ronald Reagan.
With his extraordinary intellect and his ability to speak to people’s hopes and aspirations, this president has the capacity to be the transformative leader we all thought we were electing. But if he wants to be known for giving eloquent speeches followed up by field goals where he could have had touchdowns, he is well on his way to the thirty yard line.