The Follower?

Republicans question the president’s leadership. Do they have a point?

Barack Obama

Leadership in politics is more often discussed than demonstrated. In the current budget debate, which has and will touch on every hot-button issue from entitlements to taxes, an underlying debate between the parties has centered around which lawmakers are “showing leadership” and which are simply trying to take credit for it. Republicans claim President Obama has not been a leader. But what they see as a deficiency in leadership may simply be a disagreement over strategy in which the president actually displays many of the same qualities Republican leaders once praised.

“Bold, dynamic followership,” reads the subject line of an email Monday from House Speaker John Boehner’s office criticizing the president. Obama had a chance to define a plan for deficit reduction and entitlement reform in his State of the Union address, but he ducked that opportunity. Now that House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan has offered a sweeping plan that addresses those issues, the president has announced that he will give a speech Wednesday on those topics. The congressman from Wisconsin took the lead in addressing the politically difficult issues, and the president trails in his wake. The body of the email from Boehner’s office helpfully defines the words leader and follower.

The president’s speech will challenge the House Republican budget and call for a more balanced approach– that’s a word we’ll hear a lot from the White House in the coming weeks. It comes on the heels of the averted shutdown saga in which Obama played a backseat role. He did not push for significant cuts, and though his staff was deeply involved, he only inserted himself in the debate at the last stage. So Republicans had to stifle their guffaws when they saw Obama appear late Friday night and appear to take credit for the agreement that kept government operating.

It wasn’t so much the president’s words that suggested he was taking credit, but the images made it look that way. He appeared from the White House with the Washington Monument in the background, declaring that America’s monuments had been kept open. On Monday, Obama continued the theme by visiting with a school class from Longmont, Colo.; a mother of one of the students wrote to the president expressing worry the visit would be ruined by the shutdown, which the president highlighted in his remarks. When you have a presidential escort, it doesn’t take long to zoom to the front of the parade.

Republicans are irritated because they want credit for the deal that cuts spending. They want credit not only because they think it will help them get re-elected, but also because it will help them win support with the spending cuts they want to win in the budget fights to come. They accuse the president of trying to get the glory without taking the political risk. Given that a president usually gets the political penalty whether he deserves it or not, perhaps this is one of the few times the dynamic works to his advantage.

The White House expected these lumps. The president and his aides made a tactical decision to be followers on the budget deficit. They chose not to put forward a plan to reform entitlements to bring down costs and decided not to embrace the findings of Obama’s own fiscal commission. If the president had led in this way, say White House advisers, his proposals would have become a target, and nothing major would have gotten done. This obviously was also a political strategy. Bravery points don’t help when the other party clobbers you for your bold proposals. (See also: health care reform).

The Obama approach was ratified at the time by a leader of the party now criticizing the president for his lack of leadership. On the day of the president’s State of the Union address, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told Mike Allen of Politico that if he were president, he wouldn’t speak in public about the details of an entitlement overhaul. Something that politically complicated and volatile could only be worked out in secret.

Boehner also knows the beauty of tactical restraint. In 2010, when formulating his party’s campaign pitch for the promises it would keep when it came to power, he and GOP leaders consciously steered clear of the big budget questions. Paul Ryan had already drawn up an ambitious plan, but Boehner knew better than to embrace it before an election. Instead he simply promised that he would have an “adult conversation” with the American people about the choices that needed to be made once Republicans were in power. (He’s made good on that promise.)

Boehner shares another quality with the president. Republicans are saying that Obama on Wednesday will increase his original commitment to deficit reduction only because he has been prompted by House Republicans. That was also true of Boehner, whose original deficit reduction offering was rejected by Republican freshmen. Under pressure, he agreed to a larger set of reductions.

Obama knows he could never be the leader of the deficit-reduction derby. Instead he chose to lead a different debate over priorities by focusing his State of the Union address on a series of investments he believes are necessary for America’s economic growth. Republicans thought it was crazy to design a speech around spending immediately after an election in which voters had elected Republicans on an anti-spending and deficit-reduction platform. But another way of looking at it is to say that Obama was showing the kind of leadership that usually receives praise from GOP circles: sticking to his beliefs despite the politics of the moment. Despite the public appetite for extravagant promises for spending reductions, Obama made a case for spending.

For the last several months, while allies and critics have been calling for increased public involvement on issues from Libya to the fight over the budget, he has been sticking to his “win the future” agenda and giving speeches about improving education, innovation, infrastructure, and energy alternatives. Settling on a plan and working it even when distractions conspire to pull you away from your path is also a quality associated with leadership. (This worked pretty well during the 2008 Democratic primary, when the Obama team’s long-view, delegate-based strategy paid off against Hillary Clinton.)

This design anticipated greater engagement with Republicans once they put forward a proposal and the debate could be about big issues. However, the form—a Big Speech of the kind Obama plans for Wednesday—may not have always been in the cards. And clearly the White House would have preferred that the press treat the “Win the Future” slogan seriously and not like a memo from Human Resources, which is usually where slogans like that come from.

In the end, Obama may have picked the wrong strategy, misread the political moment, and designed bad policies.  But none of that means he lacks the qualities of leadership. Public displays of leadership are the most exciting and easiest for the press to cover, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are the most politically effective. The Obama administration is betting on another way. If this approach gets results, then surely that’s a quality we want in a leader.

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