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