It’s a leadership crisis, stupid


The president and vice president meet in the Oval Office with the leadership of Congress to discuss the fiscal cliff. (Pete Souza/THE WHITE HOUSE)

We don’t have a budget crisis. We don’t have a debt ceiling crisis. We don’t have an economic growth crisis or an entitlement crisis or a constitutional crisis. What we have here in Washington is a leadership crisis. Nothing more. Nothing less.

At this juncture, all the people who ostensibly might be leading the country have come to see their job as winning—winning a trench war that’s been going on, and on, and on since 1994.

Oh, sure, they couch what they are doing in terms of “what’s best for the country,” or “the health of the economy” or “the well-being of future generations.” Don’t fall for it for a minute. At this point, it’s all about prevailing in what the key players have come to view as a holy war. It’s the same mindset that lead to the War of the Roses, the Civil War, World War I or the unending violence in the Middle East.

What we are witnessing is the very opposite of leadership, which is the ability to solve seemingly intractable problems by getting above them and redefining them.

You may recall a few weeks back when the details were released of the budget deal that allowed the country to avoid, at least temporarily, throwing itself over the fiscal cliff. Immediately, everyone’s first instinct—the politicians, the media, the interest groups—was to analyze it in terms of who won and who lost. In fact, that was precisely how the deal was crafted, to ensure that neither “side” would be seen as gaining much of an advantage or the war could be said to be on a path to being resolved. It was all about the optics, and living to fight another day.

From a policy perspective, the outlines of economically sound, politically balanced compromise have long been visible to anyone who cared to see them. But at every turn, one side or the other felt it had enough political wind at its back that it was unwilling to accept anything other than near total victory. If only we can just hold on a little longer, they tell themselves, dig our heels in a little deeper and wait until the next election when an energized base will hand us the keys to the kingdom.

But that day never comes.

Genuine leaders know when a competitive dynamic has been played out to a stalemate, and are willing to change that dynamic to produce a more satisfactory outcome—satisfactory for the country, that is, not for the politicians.

And there’s the rub. You would think incumbent politicians might realize they are better off agreeing to a grand budget bargain that makes voters see them in a more positive light. But party leaders aren’t interested in improving the re-election prospects of incumbents. For the party, success means winning even more seats in the next election, and what they have “learned” in recent years is that the best way to do that is to energize your base and demonize the opposition. Nothing about a grand bargain furthers that goal.

All of this becomes obvious to any modestly intelligent and sophisticated outsider who takes the time to peer into the current Washington process. But nearly all of our political leaders have been playing the game so long that they are now trapped by it. Their egos and sense of purpose and self-worth are totally tied up with winning the trench warfare. Their motivation at this point has more to do with revenge, or righting a past wrong, than it does with putting the country in a better place. They are unable to get enough altitude to see that nobody can or will win, and that either side would be better off with an “imperfect” resolution.

The country’s hope was that in electing Barack Obama we were electing a leader who was not so invested in the old game that he could change the way Washington worked. Instead, he got coopted by the process just as everyone else had. And one reason for it was that he surrounded himself with old Clinton hands who were not only veterans of partisan trench warfare but had proudly developed some of the more effective strategies for waging it.

That’s why it is so disappointing to see the way President Obama has behaved since his decisive re-election. Instead of being generous in victory, he’s taken every opportunity he can to spike the ball in the end zone, continuing to campaign against Republican leaders in public while lecturing and threatening them in private. And he’s gone out of his way to appoint Cabinet secretaries who were bound to antagonize Republicans rather than reassure them. The message was: “We won, you lost, now get over it.” Obama has become one of them.

Confronted with this criticism, administration officials whine about how they tried to reach out to the other side, they offered compromises and were repeatedly rebuffed by Republicans, leaving them no choice but to continue waging trench warfare. They are right about that.

What they misunderstand is what real leaders do when confronted with stubborn and unyielding opponents. You don’t say “I won’t negotiate with myself,” as Obama is fond of saying when criticized for his refusal to put forward his own version of a grand bargain. You find other, more reasonable people to negotiate with who might be enticed to throw off the bonds of party loyalty and embrace a genuine bipartisan compromise—a good place to start would be with the Republicans on the Senate’s Gang of Eight. And to do the negotiating, you don’t send in people who have old grudges to settle, old positions to defend and old ways of keeping score, which we know inevitably lead to stalemate.

The surest way, perhaps the only way, to solve stubborn problems is to create a new set of leaders. For Obama, that means identifying, empowering and supporting a new set of Republican leaders with whom he can negotiate and compromise. And it means identifying, empowering and supporting new leaders on the Democratic side as well. The thing about leadership is that it is infectious—it brings out the latent leadership instincts and talents of people throughout an enterprise or institution.

We need to acknowledge that the leadership crisis in Washington is not going to be solved by Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, John Boehner and Eric Cantor—or for that matter, Jack Lew, Gene Sperling and Joe Biden. There are, however, plenty of others in Congress and around the country who are willing and able to be part of the solution, if only they are asked by a second-term president willing to unlearn the “lessons” of his first term and the tactics of political trench warfare. Washington wants not so much for fresh ideas as fresh leaders, a clean slate and a determination to bind up old wounds.

More from On Leadership:

Doris Kearns Goodwin on life, death and the presidency

And the current women in Obama’s Cabinet?

Wal-Mart’s promise to veterans

Steven Pearlstein is a business and economics columnist who writes about local, national and international topics.
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