Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Leadership vs. Leadership Styles

When I saw a Republican "analyst" on Real Time announce that President Obama is "not a leader", I couldn't help but roll my eyes. It seems like only yesterday that Republican "analysts" were lamenting that President Obama has pushed all sorts of reforms on the nation too quickly, and had transformed our nation into some form of Kenyan socialist dystopia. With the release of a new party memo, that all gets flushed down the memory hole.

Obama's style of leadership is a fair subject for comment and criticism. I think it is fair to say the following:
  1. President Obama likes compromise solutions, and likes to achieve his compromise deals behind-the-scenes. That may not be an unreasonable approach to take in these hyperpartisan times, when even the most modest suggestion (e.g., eliminating a generous tax break for luxury corporate jets) results in a Republican "leader" and negotiator throwing a tantrum and storming away from the negotiating table. But it's a form of leadership that is largely invisible to the public and, when visible, is a bit unseemly - as if there's no firm line, and that there's nothing that cannot be negotiated away for the sake of the deal.

  2. President Obama does not take strong stands in favor of policies that he does not believe will be passed by Congress. This is not unreasonable, given that the Democrats in Congress have repeatedly gone out of their way to hamstring the President's agenda or to extort ridiculous concessions to support him. Also, taking a strong public stance in favor of an agenda that you cannot pass can make you look weak and cripple your ability to advance other items on your agenda. What did Bush accomplish after leading his party to failure on Social Security privatization?

  3. President Obama rarely uses his access to the media to attempt to shape the public debate, and when he does take a public stand it is usually very late in the game when he's simply trying to round up the last few votes. I understand the argument that the belief that even the President can reshape public opinion is an embrace of mythology, and I also understand how the modern media will often take a clear statement and use it (or allow partisan 'guests' to use it) to cloud the debate while "objectively" failing to state the facts, but I do think that the President could do a much better job explaining both his agenda and the necessity of some of the compromises he makes.

Despite the fumbles and compromises, I am having a difficult time thinking of a President who, in my lifetime, accomplished more in his first year than Obama. If we are to think of G.W. as a "leader", let's recall that he spent his first 100 days arguing that it was unfair to expect a President to accomplish anything in his first 100 days, and was doing little more than running his approval rating into the ground before he scored his "trifecta". How much credit should I give him for ramming through tax cuts for the rich via reconciliation? If you can't get sixty U.S. Senators to vote for tax cuts for the rich, you're probably doing something wrong.

As is his wont, David Brooks is advancing the Republican line in more measured tones. He initially suggests that it is a mistake for a President to "live up to th[e] grandiose image" defined by John F. Kennedy in an "Inaugural Address that did enormous damage to the country". Brooks lectures, that Kennedy's "speech gave a generation an unrealistic, immature vision of the power of the presidency." He then pays Obama a back-handed compliment, that he has "renounced that approach" and "Far from being a heroic quasi Napoleon who runs the country from the Oval Office, Obama has been a delegator and a convener". Putting in the hat of the rank amateur armchair psychoanalyst, Brooks potificates,
All his life, Obama has worked in nonhierarchical institutions — community groups, universities, legislatures — so maybe it is natural that he has a nonhierarchical style. He tends to see issues from several vantage points at once, so maybe it is natural that he favors a process that involves negotiating and fudging between different points of view.

Still, I would never have predicted he would be this sort of leader. I thought he would get into trouble via excessive self-confidence. Obama’s actual governing style emphasizes delegation and occasional passivity. Being led by Barack Obama is like being trumpeted into battle by Miles Davis. He makes you want to sit down and discern.
You might think that, in light of his comments about Kennedy and his scorn for Presidents who tend toward grandiosity, Brooks would see that as a good thing. But when it comes to this type of column, Brooks has never been one to strive for internal consistency. Brooks expresses,
But this is who Obama is, and he’s not going to change, no matter how many liberals plead for him to start acting like Howard Dean.
When the Democrats had the opportunity to pick a leader who acted like Howard Dean, and by that I mean the opportunity to nominate Howard Dean, they picked Al Gore. I'm not sure what Brooks would take as a repudiation of his notion that the Democratic Party is yearning for somebody who acts like Howard Dean, but you might think that would be sufficient.

Brooks echoes some familiar complaints about the President:
He has not educated the country about the debt challenge. He has not laid out a plan, aside from one vague, hyperpoliticized speech. He has ceded the initiative to the Republicans, who have dominated the debate by establishing facts on the ground.
Here I have some sympathy for those who argue that the President has little ability to shape the debate. Any number of prominent Republicans have made statements about the national debt and deficit that range from misleading to outright false. They have muddied up the debate on the debt ceiling, something that is already confusing to many Americans, such that almost two thirds of Americans believe that raising the debt ceiling involves new spending. And the media, including David Brooks, has been content to let that happen. What happens when the President attempts to push back? David Brooks takes time out from whining that the President has not been pushing back to whine that the President is "hyperpartisan". There are hyperpartisans in the picture and they, like Brooks, are intent upon finding fault with everything the President does, even when it's exactly what they've asked. Take it from Brooks:
If [Obama] can overcome his aloofness and work intimately with Republicans, he may be able to avert a catastrophe and establish a model for a more realistic, collegial presidency.
Which, as we've already discussed, involves working things out in back room deals, or perhaps on the golf course with John Boehner, which is what the President is already doing.

In pretty much the same category as Brooks, we have David Frum - the man who was crying bitter tears that Republican obstructionism over healthcare reform was the party's Waterloo, until Joe Lieberman saved the day for the Republicans by insisting that Medicare expansion be removed from the final bill. Back then, he was among those crying that the President was changing too much too quickly. Now? He wants to erase that history, and reinvent Obama as a wimp:
Yet Brooks has laid out the most useful and effective critique of Barack Obama for Republicans in 2012: The job has overwhelmed the man. He’s not an alien, he’s not a radical. He’s just not the person the country needs. He’s not tough enough, he’s not imaginative enough, and he’s not determined enough.
Frum argues with some validity that the President has not put enough weight behind some of his nominations, but his criticism reflects either a lack of knowledge of U.S. history and Senate rules, or a deliberate effort to mislead his readers into believing that the only thing that has changed since FDR threatened to stack the Supreme Court is the name of the man in the White House. Frum states, again with some validity,
With unemployment at 10% and interest rates at 1%, the president got persuaded that it was debt and interest that trumped growth and jobs as Public Issue #1.
I think the picture is more complicated than Frum suggests, in that although Obama clearly underestimated what it would take to bring about a strong economic recovery, assuming the federal government had the capacity to do so, he pushed through about as strong a stimulus bill as he could muster and assumed that we would have a V-shaped recovery. Yes, between the Blue Dog faction of his own party, Republican demagoguery, and a complacent media, we are dealing with a government that's intent on cutting spending when we arguably would fare much better with another enormous stimulus bill. But I'll note that, even in criticizing the President for not getting behind such a bill, Frum conspicuously avoids admitting that to be the policy he's endorsing. Well, sort-of endorsing, because I'm pretty sure that if the President were to do as Frum suggests, Frum would instead be criticizing the President for falling back on a failed idea.

Frum's historic revisionism continues,
Back in 2008, Obama made two big promises: a tax cut for everybody earning less than $250,000 and an Afghan surge. I think it’s safe to say that Obama believed in neither of them. I’d argue that neither was important to electing him. Both were adopted for defensive reasons, to shield himself from conservative critique. In the very different circumstances of 2009, both promises rapidly showed themselves to be counter-productive. The “tax cut” promise caused Obama to direct almost one-third of his big stimulus into an individual tax rebate that no economist would have regarded as effective, for reasons explained by Milton Friedman more than 40 years ago. The Afghan surge promise was regretted by Obama himself as soon as he came into office, and he spent 9 months looking for ways to evade it.
The evidence that President Obama didn't believe that a middle class tax cut would be a good idea is what, David? Nothing? And the evidence that President Obama didn't believe in a surge in Afghanistan is that it took nine months for him to implement the surge, he's stood squarely behind it for going on two years, and based upon similar principles of humanitarian intervention recently involved the U.S. in a similar venture in Libya? Who are you going to believe, David Frum or your lying eyes.

If we were to look for the truth, we might observe that the tax cut portion of the stimulus bill was included as part of an effort to gain Republican votes. In retrospect, that was a mistake, but at the time it didn't seem obvious that the Republican Party would work so overtly to harm the nation's recovery in order to advance themselves politically, or that such an approach would work. As the 2010 elections demonstrate, it did work, and the Republicans have, if anything, since doubled down on their tactics. It's "wimpy" for the President to propose that tax cuts could help an economic recovery, to express concern about the size of the deficit and national debt, and to engage in a surge and now a slow withdrawal from Afghanistan? Then few of the Republican contenders can be described as anything but uber-wimps.

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