You had to be very busy or very partisan over the past few weeks to miss the gigantic leadership crater at the White House. There is, in place of “decider” as President George W. Bush put it, a blamer, a partisan, an evader and a heckler. President Obama is still an adept liberal organizer and aggressive tactician in confronting his domestic foes, but that should not be confused with purposeful leadership.
On Syria he ducked and weaved, repudiating his own red line and hiding behind Congress’s skirts. His speech ultimately asking for Congress to refrain from a vote prompted gasps from foreign policy watchers. One conservative remarked to me recently, “It was terrifying! There he was!” Indeed, it’s one thing to be over your head and lack a coherent foreign policy; it’s another to advertise as such on the world stage.
And on domestic affairs, Obama decided a government shutdown would be helpful to his cause, and he has announced he won’t negotiate with Republicans, a critical part of any president’s job in divided government. But to what end? What is he trying to accomplish? In that regard he is the mirror image of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), a man who delights in conflict but lacks a positive vision. Both, incidentally, play the wounded victim when others respond in kind to their misbehavior. Both wanted a shutdown, each predicted his opponents would suffer.
Although it need not have developed this way (indeed the Founders were wary of a powerful executive), the president plays an outsized role in our political system. He sets the tone, direction and agenda of the country’s political life. And when it is not evident what he stands for — other than staying out of conflicts internationally and continually being in conflict with domestic opponents — the entire government sags. When his highest priority is making opponents look bad, others return in kind and redouble their barbs and extremists gain gumption.
It is not just a presidential leadership vacuum that has paralyzed government. If Obama was entirely passive, maybe the Senate or House could set an agenda. But he is forever setting new rules (no negotiations!) designed to box in his opponents. He induces others to react and overreact in ways that in turn provide him with an excuse not to act. The major theme of this second term is apparently “Their fault!” I suppose that is fine for a lesser figure, but he is the president, for goodness sake.
I don’t mean to suggest that leaders in Congress, third-party groups and media advocates are paragons of virtue or beacons of light. They too lack a vision greater than daily hand-to-hand combat. Isn’t this supposed to be about more than Sen. Harry Reid’s latest gaffe or another outburst from House hardliners, who have a platform but deny responsibility for the havoc they create? House Speaker John Boehner should not have to spend his day demonstrating just how obstinate the president can be, nor should the Senate majority leader be driven to maximize the hardship of a shutdown (Why would he do that?) so as to outfox the Republicans. And to do what? To give them what they want! And what does he want to do instead?
Leadership in the political context is not putting your opponent in an untenable position. Unlike a military commander, you cannot vanquish the other side, especially in divided government. Rather, it is figuring out how to give the other side enough so you can obtain a bigger goal. The president seems entirely incapable of or unwilling to do that. And he seems unwilling to be the president of the entire country, not just liberal partisans or the people who voted for him. He may detest red state conservatives, but he’s their president too and must understand that they deserve a functioning government even though their candidate didn’t win the White House.
An unnamed White House adviser in the Wall Street Journal is quoted as saying, “‘We are winning…It doesn’t really matter to us’ how long the shutdown lasts
‘because what matters is the end result.’” This is the, “We had to burn down the village to save it” mentality that is both morally objectionable and ultimately self-defeating, especially when your job is to protect the village from all enemies, foreign and domestic.
What can voters do about this sorry state of affairs? Rather than check the box for pols who think just like them and despise everything the other guys think, voters would be well advised to look for candidates with character and a vision larger than themselves or the advancement of their partisans. Great presidents are never the ones with the starkest ideology and most venom for the other side; they are the ones who can find ways to deal with those with whom they disagree and nevertheless advance a principled vision. Is that too much to ask for? From this president, yes.