Leading Bystander

The claims that Obama doesn’t lead are wrong and muddle things.

President Obama holds up a copy of his proposed jobs bill

Chris Christie made a rousing call for leadership at the Reagan Library Tuesday night. He outlined what it looks like (a certain New Jersey governor) and what it doesn’t (a sitting U.S. president). “We continue wait and hope that our president will finally stop being a bystander in the Oval Office,” he said. “We hope that he will shake off the paralysis that has made it impossible for him to take on the really big things.”

This is the first or second biggest critique of President Obama from Republicans. The claim that competes for the top spot is that he is a socialist who can’t stop forcing programs on the American people—not that he doesn’t lead, but that he does too much. So which is it? Obama can’t be the first president to achieve things simply through ESP, despite the Spock analogies.

The leadership critique is imprecise. Obama has shown leadership; the question is (or should be) what kind. It’s also a rhetorical trick. What the president’s critics really mean when they say the president “isn’t leading” is that he hasn’t announced that he is supporting their plans, or that he hasn’t decided to commit public suicide by announcing a position for which they can then denounce him.

By any measure, Obama is a leader. The first stimulus plan, health care reform, and financial regulatory reform he pushed for are all significant pieces of legislation. Christie’s measurement of leadership is doing “big things” even if they are unpopular. Health care, as Republicans will tell you, represents about one-fifth of the economy. Obama certainly wasn’t facing the prospect of popularity when he pushed for changing it.

To the extent that there is a memorable management quote from the Obama years, it is about showing leadership: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” 

In putting Reagan forward as the paragon of leadership, Christie showed just how messy definitions of leadership can be. The governor said “the rule for effective governance is simple. It is one Ronald Reagan knew by heart. … When there is a problem, fix it.” Is he sure that was Reagan’s message? A more familiar Reagan-praising speech would have read: “The rule for effective governance is simple. Get government out of the way.” By characterizing the government’s role as a fix-it shop, Christie is either redefining Reagan or missing the rule Reagan knew by heart: that government isn’t the place you turn to get your fix.

Christie singled out Ronald Reagan’s firing of air-traffic control workers as a tone-setting move early in his administration. Obama fired the head of GM. Not as big a move, certainly, and you may disagree with it, but it is not the move of a president unable to make tough calls. 

From the air-traffic controller’s strike, Christie drew a foreign policy lesson. America’s friends and enemies, he said, knew that the president was serious. For the purposes of argument, let’s assume that’s true. In such a world it must also then be possible that issuing the orders to kill Osama Bin Laden also sent a message. A president who is a mere bystander couldn’t have done that.

At the time, Reagan’s conservative critics would have laughed at anyone who would have tried to use the firing as a stand-in for foreign policy strength. They often accused the president of being weak with Russia. They called him an “idiot for Soviet propaganda.” So, too, Obama’s critics say his dithering in the Middle East overshadows any leadership success he might claim from staying focused on killing Bin Laden. At which point an Obama defender might point out that Reagan pulled out of Lebanon completely when the going got tough—a weaker leadership signal than Obama’s Afghanistan troop build-up and predator drone escalation. 

This fight can go on and I encourage partisans to have at it in the comments section (as if they need any encouragement from me). But it is an argument about kinds of leadership, not whether a president has it.

The leadership critique obscures the real questions that should be asked about the sitting president or the person who wishes to replace him. Simply being a leader doesn’t tell you much. George W. Bush used to say “a leader leads” as if simply taking action should absolve him of criticism. That didn’t get him off the hook any more than Obama should be off the hook now.

The questions should be about effective leadership. Does he pick the right fights? Does he have the skills to succeed, or at least mark up a qualified success? If his leadership has not been effective, is the president the only one to blame? America does have a divided government. The president is not king. Is it Obama or Republicans in Congress who deserves the greater share of the blame? Or, as Christie suggested in his speech, is it both?

Getting the definition of leadership right keeps us from falling under the spell of pretty words. Calling for leadership is a trick both parties use to arouse anger and keep us from thinking too much more about the underlying issue. If only we had a leader, everything would be solved, they’d like us to think. But we should think more about what it actually takes to be president—what kind of leadership works and what kind of leadership doesn’t.

Simply saying things aren’t working and drawing a line back to whoever is president doesn’t actually tell us anything useful that we might apply to the next person we’d put in office. Instead, we wind up voting for the person who most forcefully claims the current occupant lacks leadership. That makes for appealing speeches, but a fondness for rhetoric is what the president’s critics say led the country into voting for him in the first place.