Thursday, September 2, 2010

Can Obama Lead?

While I did not vote for him and philosophically disagree with him on a lot of issues, I have never been a Barack Obama basher. I respect his intellect, charisma, and the magnitude of his achievement in becoming the first African-American president. I think he is a decent man. And, if we have to have a Democrat in the White House at this juncture in history, I’d much prefer him than Hillary Rodham Clinton.

But, as president, he’s shaping up to be a disaster.

I don’t say that because he is a liberal and I am a self-styled libertarian. We have had presidents in the past who I would not have voted for had I been around at the time, but whose greatness I easily concede today (such as FDR, Harry Truman, and JFK). I make this statement about Obama because he just seems overwhelmed by the responsibilities of his office.

As far as I can tell, his problems as president derive from three fundamental causes.

First, he lacks basic management experience. Obama came to the White House having managed nothing larger than a senatorial staff. It's worth noting that, including Obama, only three sitting U. S. Senators were elected president in the past century. Of these, Warren Harding was a disaster, and JFK stumbled into the Bay of Pigs fiasco at the very outset of his presidency. Success in a legislature requires different skills than success in the executive branch.

When Obama became president, he maintained the tree tops view of leadership that worked so well for him as a candidate. Rather than enmesh himself in the healthcare debate, he left the details to Democratic leaders in Congress. This resulted in chaos which almost derailed Obama’s signature initiative. When the BP oil spill occurred, Obama took too long asserting federal ownership of the problem, just like George W. Bush did with Hurricane Katrina.

Four of the six men elected president before Obama were sitting or former governors. Governors make attractive presidential candidates because the job provides them daily experience in running an administration, working with a legislature, and managing public opinion. Obama never had the benefit of such on-the-job training. That is why he continues to make mistakes a neophyte manager would make.

Second, he did not listen to the mandate bestowed upon him by the American people: Fix the economy. As president, he passed a controversial, costly, and seemingly ineffective stimulus bill, then turned his back on the economy in favor of a healthcare plan which, although a canonical priority for liberals, never enjoyed a broad popular mandate.

Americans worried about the economy wanted Obama to be an FDR who would boldly guide the nation out of the Great Recession. Instead, they got LBJ. But unlike Obama, when LBJ created Medicare he had both a popular mandate to pass it and the economic prosperity needed to pay for it.

Presidential historian Richard Neustadt famously wrote, “Presidential power is the power to persuade.” Obama never completely sold his case for healthcare reform to the electorate. Instead, he rushed to give the American people what he thought they needed - and his liberal constituency demanded - and ignored what many of his voters specifically wanted him to do.

Third, while President Obama is a skillful campaigner and mass communicator, he lacks the political wisdom and nuance regularly demonstrated by the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton. When defending the proposal to locate a mosque at Ground Zero, Obama’s argument focused on something nobody disputed: Americans’ absolute right to religious freedom. He did not immediately address the basic wisdom and desirability of the proposal in light of the powerful emotions and symbolism involved. In other words, he ignored the should in favor of the can. In the process, he looked tin-earred if not insensitive.

If, as expected, Democrats suffer huge losses in Congress, it will be interesting to see to what extent Obama changes course. You can make the argument that losing control of Congress in 1994 gave Bill Clinton a path to victory in 1996. President Obama has proven he is a skilled organizer. To govern effectively with a Republican Congress, he will have to prove he is a skilled and resilient leader. So far, he has not.

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