One of the defining features of Barack Obama’s presidency is a refusal or inability to get out in front of problems and steer events in their favor. As Bob Woodward told ABC’s Diane Sawyer on the debt ceiling deal, “‘President Clinton, President Reagan. And if you look at them, you can criticize them for lots of things. They by and large worked their will,’ Woodward told Sawyer. ‘On this, President Obama did not.’ ”
Obama, a man whose biggest contributions to America before the presidency were words (in his books, in his speeches) and who showed little passion for legislative output in his brief tenure in the Senate, has told us he considers himself to be transformational and the role of the president (not coincidentally matching his own strengths) to be inspirational. But oozing inspiration from every pore does not head off terrorists, balance budgets, reform the tax code or avoid a fiscal cliff.
Mitt Romney seems to have grasped the conflict between Obama’s self-image as a inspiration figure and the current needs of the country. In Las Vegas on Friday he got to the heart of the matter:
As a result of Obama’s preference for words over action, most big issues in the Obama administration became a last-minute scramble to avoid calamity (e.g., the debt ceiling) or a triage operation to clean up the messes after the fact (e.g., the attacks on the diplomatic missions). If Obama had diligently pursued either tax or entitlement reform, the country would not have been convulsed over the debt ceiling fight. If Obama had correctly perceived how jihadists regard the United States, we could well have prevented the murder of four Americans. If Obama had months ago taken his defense secretary’s warning that sequestration cuts would be “devastating” and followed the House’s lead in coming up with alternative cuts, we wouldn’t be looking at massive layoffs and implementation of those devastating cuts. And if the president had gotten out in front, met the House speaker’s invitation to head off the fiscal cliff and struck a deal, we wouldn’t be seeing yet another downturn in hiring and investment as businesses nervously wait to see if the economy will crash.
Americans who wanted to feel good about themselves and the country and get some inspirational cheerleading voted for Obama in 2008. But the challenge is different now, and the president’s preference for talk over action, divisiveness over deal-making and campaigning over governance is an impediment — a big one — to solving the nation’s problems. What the country needs now is not someone who wants desperately to be the outsider once again extolling the troops to change D.C. It needs someone who will roll up his sleeves, immerse himself in the nitty-gritty work of governing and get something done.
The problem with the “inspirational” and “change from outside” hooey is that the public doesn’t speak with one voice and deliver one party the White House and super majorities in both Houses. The public doesn’t draft the grand bargain. That is the job of leaders, to take whatever mandate they think the public has delivered and translate that into results. If you can’t do that — or worse, if you have no interest in doing that — now is not a good time to be president.