Sunday, July 31, 2011

Obama: Failure to Lead

It can’t have escaped your attention, my dear X, that throughout the past week, as the debate over the budget and the debt ceiling has ground on so listlessly that one man has been missing from it all: the President of the United States. Obama’s exit from the scene came last Monday, when at the conclusion of a rather pointless, message-less televised address, he ended with a plea for all Americans to call their congressmen. He may as well have said “I give up”.

Obama’s response to a legislative impasse known to have been coming from months has been abject, even in a situation where everybody’s hands have a touch of the Lady Macbeth about them. The Tea Party are a most agitative and tedious bunch, but they are in the ballpark of correct to criticise the President for not putting a single plan into writing. This is all the more irksome, considering he failed to endorse the Bowles-Simpson Plan – a deficit reduction package conceived by a commission appointed by him – or the dealings of the Gang of Six, a pack of Senators who negotiated directly with his own vice-president.

Instead, he has taken to constantly appealing for compromise, compromise, compromise, yet has given no shape or direction to what this deal might look like. It’s been a bad week – one which, all in all, ought to bury six feet under the myth clung to by America’s right that he is some kind of monomaniacal leftist out to totally recast the United States as a European social democracy with universal state-run healthcare and a vast federal bureaucracy.

The president may be a liberal – in the American sense of the word – but above all he is a consensus builder, a man who seeks to bridge divides and heal wounds in all the arenas in which he has operated, from editing the Harvard Law Review, to pounding the streets as a community organiser in Chicago, to cooperating with Dick Luger in the Senate on arms control legislation.

It was obvious really from the get-go. After all, Obama was said to have been greatly influenced in terms how he might approach his presidency by Abraham Lincoln, and in particular Doris Kearns Goodwin’s history Team of Rivals. So just as Lincoln appointed William H. Seward, the man whom he defeated to capture the Republican nomination in 1860, as his Secretary of State, Obama felt it necessary to nominate Hillary Rodham Clinton to that exact same office in his administration.

But the difference between Lincoln and Obama is clear. Lincoln may have consorted the opinions of others – in particular Seward and Salmon P. Chase, his Secretary to the Treasury – but he possessed a very clear vision which was to keep the Union together at all costs and stop the spread of slavery in the newly incorporated territories in the west. Furthermore, Lincoln was willing use the full extent of his executive power, including some extra-constitutional means (which are not advisable for Obama with regard to the Fourteenth Amendment) to bring about the ends he sought.

Obama, we know now, does not seem to wish to use the office of the presidency as a branch which directly inputs legislation into governmental meat grinder. Rather, his preferred strategy is to merely articulate his goal – be that to increase the numbers of people who possess health insurance, or end discrimination against homosexuals in the military – and leave it to Congress to come up with a way to put his idea into a workable Bill.

To say that this method has produced mixed results would be an understatement. The Affordable Care Act will come to be seen as the major achievement of his first term, but by handing over responsibility to Congress for its creation, the process became so protracted as to swallow the first year of his presidency. Obama ended up losing most of his political capital and handing fodder to Republicans who hit back at his party in the following midterm elections. Moreover, in the heat of it all, he threw overboard the one brilliant idea that might have actually lowered insurance premiums for everybody: the public option.

People within the administration have dubbed this tactic “leading from behind” – a phrase his Republican opponents and their allies in Media have eaten up and drooled over like a dog with a Snausage. And, when it comes to foreign policy, his timidity and caution have cost the international community dearly. That we have been in Libya for four months without success is due in no small part to Obama’s dithering prior to intervention, when compared to the bold leadership displayed by Cameron and Sarkozy. Gaddafi was granted time enough to move his assets, military and fiscal, about strategically to the point where finding him has become almost impossible. As was the case with the liberation of Iraq, the delay in striking the first blow has only made an inevitable mission lengthier and costlier.

His penchant for prudence, compromise and deal-making has also had the effect of upsetting and alienating many within his own party whom he is supposed to lead. While he was able to enact the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (again, the work of the Senate), Obama threw Democrats under the bus during the lame duck session last year when he committed to extend all and not just some of the Bush tax cuts, further limiting rates on the wealthiest Americans to record lows. And indeed, when it comes to gay rights, Obama is leading the Democrats from behind, adopting a negative if ‘evolving’ position on the question of gay marriage.

So it is that the American left finds itself in the position of having to look towards the Senate and the House, to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, for guidance during this time of turmoil (something nobody should wish on anyone). President Obama has failed to lead, and has since his defiant GOP-bashing press conference last Friday, and the pleading, empty speech the following Monday, been missing in action.

A perception now is beginning to ferment in the minds of not only the American right but his natural allies as well, at this most critical juncture in his presidency, that he doesn’t want to take the reins and pull back the horses tugging the United States towards that ever-present metaphorical cliff. Obama would be wise to pick up Team of Rivals once again, and remember that Lincoln won the Civil War not because he constructed a cabinet of all the talents, but because was able to control it.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand”, Lincoln told his party so marvellously and pointedly upon accepting the nomination to run for the Senate in Illinois. Another former Senator from the Prairie State would be wise to heed these words. A president separated from his country shall not stand, and nor will a party bereft of its leader.