There are certainly different styles of leadership. But President Obama is suffering the results of poor choices (passing a huge new entitlement on a party-line vote) and of what can only be described as a lack of courage.
Brit Hume says it as well as anyone: “When the issues are difficult and the options unappetizing he tends simply to go away.”
Obama practically disappeared from the scene (no calls to Cabinet officials, no convening in the Situation Room) on the night of the Benghazi, Libya, attack. He seems more concerned on the NSA flap with distancing himself from conservatives whom he loathes (“I am not Dick Cheney”) and in Syria on protecting his self-image (he ends wars, doesn’t start them) than in taking the heat from Democrats. When coverage is not glowing, he becomes cranky with the media (as does his spokesman). He is most at ease campaigning before a crowd (whether it is an election or not) when he can accuse opponents of ill-will and flail away at straw men with no interruption.
Contrast that with a happy warrior like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who is delighted when engaging opponents and takes pleasure not only in confronting critics but also winning them over:
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) makes his arguments with PowerPoint and raw data. Even with (especially with!) right-wing critics, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is polite to a fault while making his arguments in a lawyerly fashion.
There is no single leadership style a president must embrace. To be successful, however, often requires a politician to get out of his party’s cocoon (as Christie is forced to do every day, as Ryan had to do in moving the party on fiscal issues, as Rubio is doing on immigration) to achieve big things and take on the mantle of leadership. If you simply turn up the volume on the conventional wisdom of one’s own party (unless you are a radio talk show host), you are unlikely to succeed. To impress those outside the party or to stand out from the crowd within the party often requires willingness to undertake considerable criticism and risk losing the affections of the most stubborn wing of your party.
Indeed partisans too often think that leadership amounts to the most voracious expression of party dogma. That of course is recitation, not leadership. Leadership means taking people from here to there, even when they are uncertain or ignorant about the best course. A party chairman rallies the faithful; a president widens his gaze to embrace the entire country and to win over political opponents.
Obama is floundering, in part because his leadership was superficial (play to the base, mouth platitudes) and in part because he is a mediocre leader when things are going poorly (i.e. when it matters). Perhaps uninterrupted success in politics after one defeat in a congressional race and the echo chamber of continual applause from the left provided him with a false sense of his ability to persuade and of the world’s willingness to fall in line. In proudly telling voters that the White House counsel tried to “protect” the president from involvement in the IRS scandal, we learned much about a White House turned inward toward self-protection rather than outward to plow new ground.
In any event, when events spin out of control or complex crises hit, Obama tends to complain that decisions are “hard” or situations are “complex.” Presidents adept at leadership and attuned to resolving actual conflict don’t talk that way. If the questions are easy or simple someone else can deal with them. The country deserves better than an AWOL president.