I think people on both sides of the political spectrum can probably agree with this: if Obama’s read on the economy is correct, he will end up as one of America’s greatest Presidents. If his perspective is wrong, he’ll fail spectacularly. The reason is that during a time of crisis he brings to the office a natural leadership capacity which suggests that he’ll be able to get in place the policies he wants, and then let his Presidency be judged on the outcomes.
Leadership is not a trait that’s easy to assess or measure. Bill Clinton was popular, but he ultimately had to jettison his agenda for one that included heavy compromises with the Republican majority in Congress. Not that he was a bad leader, but he wasn’t a really good one either. He squandered his two years of having a Democratic majority, and was overly concerned with public opinion and daily polls. He wanted to be loved and popular, and those desires can be poison to leadership potential.
George W. Bush actually exhibited some positive leadership traits in his second term, even as his popularity plummetted. He essentially abandoned the neo-conservative policies he embraced in his first term, but did so in a way that did not seem to be an admission of failure. Unlike Jimmy Carter, whose “eyes were opened” by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Bush never claimed his “eyes were opened” by the 2006 Iraqi civil war. Instead, he changed policy. The “surge” was less about more boots on the ground than a real shift in how Sunni insurgents were handled. Through 2006 they were the enemy, allied with foreign al qaeda elements, and any call to give them amnesty was met with disdain. They had killed Americans after all! But by 2007 and into 2008 the US formed partnerships with them, ceased trying to defeat them, and instead joined them to focus on a common foe — al qaeda.
This also meant giving up on the idea of a wholly unified Iraq that would be a pro-American democratic ally in the region. The Bush administration realized that the neo-conservative fantasy was dead. But they still talked about democracy and managed to shift policy in a way that was credible, even if he couldn’t recover his popularlity.
Of other recent Presidents, George Bush the Elder showed positive leadership traits, while both Reagan and Carter get mixed reviews. Reagan was too intellectually lazy to engage issues and let his staff run wild, ultimately leading to an Iran-Contra scandal which handicapped his second term. Carter was too engaged and tried to micromanage, often vacillating on policy as he tried to figure out the right mix of perspectives. He seemed afraid to get it wrong.
President Obama is illustrating leadership traits that we haven’t seen in the White House for some time, at least not in my life time. First, he clearly is engaged. He apparently became personally outraged at the behavior of the bankers and AIG officials who were receiving government bailouts that he decided to intervene and make sure that CEOs and in particular the automobile industry be held accountable. In a piece in Politico, Allen and Vandehei describe a remarkable effort by the executive branch to influence corporate action and assure that the White House is the “biggest player” in economic restructuring plans. Otherwise, no government help.
Two things strike me about this. First, his is a major change in how government engages business. To many on the right, this is an ‘imperial Presidency,’ a statist attempt to usurp private industry, doomed to the kind of pitfalls experienced in the old socialist economies of Eastern Europe. To supporters of Obama, it is necessary action to both fix what the private sector so utterly broke, and hold people who get taxpayer money accountable. If they are going to get billions, strings need to be attached. He is getting intense criticism from both the right and the left. On the left Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman skewers Obama for being too close to the corporate elite and not initiating dramatic change. On the right, Senator Corrnyn considers this a power grab by the Executive to benefit “blue states,” an unprecedented exertion of executive power into the private sector. Clearly, Obama is willing to act decisively, regardless of criticism (and as the G20 meets, I’ll note real differences between Obama and European leaders). If he’s right, this will make his persistance all the more admirable and remarkable. If he’s wrong, he probably won’t get a second term.
The second point is that he is doing this without rubbing business leaders the wrong way. In a meeting with CEOs where Obama made it clear it would be done his way, the CEOs came out saying they felt “consulted” and not lectured to (in the “Politico” article linked above). In other words, Obama is able to get even people who seem to be disadvantaged by his actions to if not buy into his plan, at least accept it and respect Obama as President. This is a real mark of leadership.
To be an effective leader, you can’t simply bark out orders and alienate people. One failure of President George W. Bush was how he had to force so many Pentagon Generals to retire in order to get things done his way going into Iraq. Obama seems to get people to climb on board and work together, which is much better than having a power play. Sure, it hasn’t worked well with the Republicans in Congress (except the important centrists like Snowe, Collins and Specter), but it has worked with less partisan groups such as the generals at the Pentagon (Petraeus has clearly gone from being Bush’s man to being Obama’s) and now CEOs who might otherwise be threatened by the President’s demand to shape the response to the crisis. It seems that the President’s capacity to listen and alter his position in response to a good argument allows him to win over potential skeptics.
I don’t know if Obama’s approach is right. I hope so, the risks are high if he’s wrong. But I do know that I am somewhat comforted by the fact we seem to have an intelligent, engaged President with true leadership capacity in charge at this time of intense global crisis. I hope he is being up front in saying that budget deficits need to be cut in coming years as well; I think his long term success depends on creating a sustainable budget. I also tend to trust him that he does not want to impose socialism or have government run business — that this is a short term needed intervention to fix an economy spiraling into what I’ve called the ‘vortex of doom.’ In other words, so severe and perilous is our current situation that we have to act in ways we’d otherwise reject, the very prosperity and perhaps the stability of the nation is at stake.