A few posts ago, I asked how you rate President Obama’s leadership on health care reform.
There were some intriguing responses. I said at the time that I agreed with Jeff Friedman, who replied via Facebook:
As seems to be the case with almost every issue he tackles, his heart is in the right place, but he doesn’t seem to have the stomach for a good, old fashioned street fight. And, unfortunately, until he quits trying to be Conciliator-in-Chief and starts to tackle the Republicans and the Blue Cross, I mean the Blue Dog, Democrats head on, most of his positive agenda for the country is going to fall by the wayside. If only he had the stubborn, confrontational approach for his good ideas that George W. Bush had for his horrible ones.
Still, I had the audacity to hope that Obama would gain strength in his role and become increasingly willing to put forth bold initiatives to solve problems such as the 40 million Americans lacking health insurance and many millions more teetering on the brink of losing it along with their jobs or being so underinsured they can’t afford primary or preventive care.
I take to heart the position of smart young author Courtney Martin (please read her Washington Post column about this topic here and vote for her to be their next new pundit) that Obama is exercising a significant kind of leadership when he says citizens must lead ourselves by participating in the process not just during elections, but every day.
Yesterday, I was glued to the television, watching with more than a modicum of hope that the health care bill would pass, even though I have serious reservations about whether the current cobbled together bill will control costs. After all, health care economists have been telling us for many years that the only way to bring down costs is to get everybody into the insurance pool. I’m sure they never imagined we’d end up with so many pools for people to dive into in the name of “choice.”
Choice, that is, for everyone except women–but let me leave that topic for another post.
Despite his extraordinary rhetorical skills and the very important vision-thing in the macro sense, it isn’t likely that history books will rank Obama among the greatest American presidents.
Why? Because he has thus far failed to exercise these four essential leadership skills:
He hasn’t set out a concrete, decisive policy agenda. The first responsibility of a leader is to create meaning, and the most important power of the executive leader is to set the agenda. Having seen President Clinton falter on health are by presenting a full-blown bill to Congress, Obama decided to present no bill; hence the committee-designed “camel” even longer than Clinton’s bill. And by the time health reform (which Obama shifted to calling “health insurance reform” when he encountered the predictable opposition) passes the Senate and goes through conference committee, it’s likely to look worse than that proverbial sausage Otto Von Bismark famously compared to lawmaking. Similarly, though Obama acted quickly to move his stimulus package, more of the money has been spent saving the establishments that caused the problems than is going to generate bold new technological and educational initiatives to grow the economy for the long term.
He hasn’t asked for sacrifice in a time that requires it. Obama is said to read books about Franklin D. Roosevelt. But apparently hasn’t yet gotten to the part where the American people were asked to join in common sacrifice, for the war overseas to be sure, but also the economic war at home. Roosevelt called upon people to think about the greater good, rather than solely their own pocketbooks. He recruited business leaders to work for a dollar a year thinking up new ways to increase employment for the masses; Obama has recruited business leaders, drawing full pay, whose strong ties to the failed financial industry make their solutions subject to question. Though likened to JFK, Obama hasn’t offered us a concrete way to “ask not,” or to aspire high, such as the Peace Corps or the moon shot. There is nobility in pulling together to solve a big problem, and we need a leader to elevate our aspirations beyond our own personal needs.
He hasn’t keep tethered his actions securely to the principles he espoused during his campaign. At the Netroots conference last summer, Valerie Jarrett, one of his closest advisors and chef spokespersons, made clear that if progressives wanted this president to get behind any of the policies they support, they must mobilize visible support in order to persuade him to use his political capital. True, advocates have a responsibility to activate their constituencies. But this message to “show me you have the support and then we’ll decide whether to act on the principles we promised” is calculation worthy of the most callous Chicago pol. With health reform, that translated to delicate dances around whether he wanted or didn’t really care about having a public option. No wonder the public is becoming weary and wary.
He has chosen top advisors who are similarly driven by expediency and prone to look for short term political gain rather than long term vision. It’s a very good idea for a leader to surround himself or herself with people who are not mirror images personality-wise. During the campaign, it was useful to have a strategist like David Axelrod, but now Axelrod’s tendency to conflict avoidance just multiplies Obama’s already too well-developed desire for us all to just get along. And Rahm Emmanuel’s vaunted insider knowledge of the legislative process is no doubt valuable, but it exacerbates Obama’s tendency to pragmatic politics over principle. The misbegotten “Common Ground” effort on abortion is one example of squandering the brief time a president has after winning office to enact the legislation he promised (such as the Freedom of Choice Act which during the campaign he promised would be at the top of the agenda but subsequently dumped). Have any of those anti-choice Common Ground people helped pass the stimulus or health reform? No. Has all the pandering to Olympia Snowe to get a faux bipartisan health bill been fruitful? Hardly. In both instances, they have only delayed the works, opposed the president in the end, and with the delay brought a daily dimunition of his power.
Obama’s presidency is still young. He has faced problems of a magnitude that make me want to cut him a great deal of slack. I remain hopeful he will grow in his ability and willingness to stake out his agenda and, using his great oratorical and pedagogical skills, will lead America to its higher self.
I would be most pleased if a year or two from now, I could write that Barack Obama will go down in history as one of our greatest presidents. What are your thoughts?