The Limits to Leading from Behind

For many of President Barack Obama’s supporters, the debt -ceiling crisis was the final proof needed to confirm their fears of a leaderless presidency. Over the past three years, they have watched an administration that was reluctant to push for a more aggressive stimulus after his inauguration, that allowed the opportunity of balanced climate change legislation to slip away, and that nearly capitulated on healthcare reform were it not for the decisiveness of Nancy Pelosi.

Where, his supporters asked, was the Obama who gave the much applauded campaign speech on race during the debt- ceiling stalemate? Where was the Obama who would have spoken elegantly and forcefully against an ideology that in broadly demonizing government, threatens to undermine our democracy? Where was the Obama who would have spoken cogently about the harsh realities of fiscal responsibility – and denounced a party that in the course of a generation has nearly succeeded in transforming taxes from a duty to unpatriotic?

It is beyond doubt that Mr. Obama’s presidency has been needlessly and shamefully hindered by an opposition so committed to his defeat that they were willing to sacrifice the interest of the American people. But it is chiefly Mr. Obama’s failure to have not been more assertive. In his passiveness, Mr. Obama has proven that partisanship is not an inflammation that ought not be provoked to heal, but a cancer that if not checked, will only spread. In the absence of a concrete program of initiatives, Mr. Obama has strengthened his opponents by allowing them to project their very worst assumptions on him, stoking the fears and anger of a considerable portion of the electorate.

During his 2008 campaign, astute observers – and Obama himself –described him as a “Rorschach test” upon which the electorate projected their own hopes and fears. His passiveness and overly deferential stance to Congress has led many to revisit this “Rorschach test” as nothing more than a euphemism for a man without a vision for his country. Sympathetic observers respond that the enormity of the financial crisis would have overwhelmed any lesser president.

In an essay in the New York Times, Emory Professor Drew Weston attributes Mr. Obama’s silence to his simultaneous presidential campaign as a unity and reform candidate; he ultimately could not maintain his commitment to one without sacrificing the other. Others may point to Mr. Obama’s silence as a consequence of the Henry Louis Gates incident, in which a plain-speaking Obama encountered the wrath of a country unwilling to be lectured on its faults. Still others explain his rudderless leadership by the departure of Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, well known for his take-no-prisoners style.

Perhaps Mr. Obama’s passiveness has deeper, more psychological origins. Some very cynical observers suggest that the apparent absence of vision, along with the short and unremarkable tenures as a law professor, Illinois state and then US senator, is the sign of an empty ambition – an underlying hunger for office for power’s sake hidden behind Mr. Obama’s considerable intelligence and charm. These charges should be rebuked: Mr. Obama has proven himself to be too good of a man to be a mere seeker of power. (Indeed, despite his policies, most Americans still assess his character highly.)

It has been said that Mr. Obama has known his entire life that he was the smartest man in every room he entered; that and his oratorical talent could not help but feed a sincere belief that the presidency was his destiny. This inevitably leads one to speculate whether Mr. Obama’s vision for this country extends no further than his justness to head it – a subtle, but important distinction from blind ambition for office. The passiveness that characterizes his presidency resembles the restraint of a court that must wait for a case to come to them to decide what is right, instead of a president who must lead on an issue or risk being consumed by it. When difficult decisions do come to his desk, such as the risky decision to order the raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani compound, President Obama has made the right calls.

Obama’s foreign policy has also encountered harsh criticism, particularly in the wake of his response to the Arab Spring. The Obama doctrine has been described as a policy of “leading from behind.” But international affairs are no different from domestic politics; you either are actively shaping events or you are perpetually at their mercy. If politics is football, you win by scoring the most points on offense; no matter how good your defense, you’re still not in control of your destiny while the other team has the ball. Mr. Obama has played his presidency with a strategy to not lose, not an outright attempt to win. Even if he were to fail in the active pursuit of an initiative, Americans, more than eager to provide second chances, could at least look to their president and know for what he stood.

The president cannot passively wait for issues to come neatly packaged for judgment. Instead, as president one must get out from behind the desk to shape and frame the national debate – and, above all, act with reason, not judge from afar. By treating the presidency as a judgeship, Obama has removed himself from the forefront of national leadership and has ceded it to a broken Congress engorged with too much money and that is (paradoxically) perpetually occupied with the next election despite being artificially safe in their seats thanks to political redistricting. Mr. Obama’s defenders defend his leadership as sensibly centrist. But centrism is not neutrality – it’s constructively channeling the passions and ideas of both left and right forward.

Mr. Obama’s cool silence against the unreason that poisons this country’s political discourse and taints its future reflects the confidence of a man who knows in his heart that what is right will ultimately prevail. Where Mr. Obama errs is in his apparent belief that to confront ignorance only legitimizes it as an alternative. He is wrong. What is right must be articulated, fought for, and defended. He assumes that what is wrong will exhaust itself – and it always will – but not before the gravest damage is already done.

But it is a mistake to write off Mr. Obama’s presidency and there is still time for his administration to rescue the faltering recovery and drive jobs growth. Unfortunately he will have to work against the headwinds of the immediate cuts mandated by the debt ceiling agreement, which many analysts fear may undermine an already anemic recovery still without robust private sector demand. How, then, should Mr. Obama proceed from now until the election?

Before 2011 comes to a close, Mr. Obama should present a clear package of proposals to extend unemployment benefits, allow corporations to repatriate their more than $1 trillion in foreign earnings, push for the approval of the three existing free trade agreements lingering in Congress, and charter an infrastructure bank. The president should also do more to address housing – the neglected epicenter of the recession – by proposing to refinance taxpayer-backed mortgages en masse. Some estimate that helping Americans refinance their homes would unlock as much as a$46 billion a year in savings for families and help right the still struggling middle class. Reports indicate that president Obama plans to push for at least some of these stimulus measures in the newly instituted debt panel’s recommendations, which would face only an up-or-down vote in Congress. It is likely that the new debt panel will achieve its target in cuts, but not much more, meaning Mr. Obama should be ready to face Congress directly.

In 2012, it would be a mistake for Mr. Obama to run on a defense of his first term. This is not for a lack of accomplishment: indeed, his decisions prevented an out-and-out economic collapse and his tough call to bail out U.S. automakers has exceeded expectations. The administration’s Race to the Top program in education has helped spur the country towards stronger national standards and better instruction. For all its flaws, there are still redeeming qualities to his health care bill. But too many of these positive reforms are still in their incipient phases and their impact not yet felt by the American people; his prevention of outright economic depression is a counterfactual unfit to run on.

Instead, Mr. Obama should run on ideas and clearly define the agenda of a second term in a way that he did not with his first, starting with a clear and ambitious plan for tax and entitlement reform. He should undercut criticism of “Obamacare” by proposing how it should be improved – for example, by enacting sensible malpractice reform. And, if the Tea Party succeeds in having one of its candidates at the head of the Republican ticket, Obama’s greatest coup would be to attract a moderate conservative as his running mate to split the establishment Republican vote. Someone like Jon Huntsman, the admirable and principled former governor of Utah (and Obama’s ex-ambassador to China) who deserves a place on the national stage that the Republican Party will, in all likelihood, regrettably fail to give him. In the past two presidential elections, Kerry unsuccessfully attempted to woo McCain and in 2008, McCain flirted with Lieberman; a bipartisan ticket is only a matter of time.

It is an unfortunate irony that a president who said that he was more willing to be a good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president may indeed be a one-term president – not for the unpopular but right decisions he made, but for the many right ones he could have, but didn’t, make at all.

Kyle Hutzler is a sophomore in Calhoun College.


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