Letting Others Lead

Obama is giving a budget speech today. This Washington Post article contains a paragraph that I feel perfectly describes why Obama's leadership feels lacking.

"Letting others take the lead on complex problems has become a hallmark of the Obama presidency. On health care, last year’s tax deal and the recent battle over 2011 spending cuts, Obama has repeatedly waited as others set the parameters of the debate, swooping in late to cut a deal. The tactic has produced significant victories but exposed Obama to criticism that he has shown a lack of leadership."

Obama's reliance on experts and commissions is not bad leadership. It's what any good leader should do. 

The problem lies in the void that emerged while the Administration compiled, polled and committee'd alternative solutions to the crystal clear and forceful messages being pushed out by right wing, messages including: 

Tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy are good for the economy and will stimulate growth and efficiency, ultimately benefiting the poorest citizens.

The unsustainable state of certain Government services means they should be obliterated & privatized rather than fixed or altered or re-tooled. 

And so on. Why isn't there a huger debate taking place in this country about these issues? Polls show that much of the country is willing to listen to alternatives to the 'serious' Paul Ryan approach.  Instead, these huge ideological arguments being largely ignored and replaced by bickering over relatively small numbers. The idea war is being dominated by a small group of GOP and Tea Party representatives taking advantage of the void in communication created by an overly cautious, overly bureaucratic, overly moderate Democratic establishment. Someone like Obama, a politician historically good at creating inspiring narratives, should have been all over this, but instead he has been what a lot of his opponents accused him of being from the beginning: an empty suit. I know he feels he is taking the only approach that achieves results, but I think Obama's stock in trade - a deep trust in institutions and experts to 'get it right' - lacks perspective right now. He needs to remember that there is a kind of leadership that involves dirty work in achieving real solutions to real problems, and then there is ideological, inspirational leadership. This second sort of leadership is essential when the country is at a deep divide or impasse - at the brink of war, or following great tragedy, or in the midst of a vast disagreement over policy - and it's leadership missing from his Presidency. 

I don't think the Obama Administration trusts that the people in this country can embrace an alternative solution to what the GOP, led by Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Michelle Bachmann and the other vocal leaders of the movement have so effectively communicated to the populace. The far right message being sold as serious medicine represents a further shift in wealth, power and resources to the wealthiest, most privileged Americans and an across the board disenfranchisement of the people who rely on social services to pull themselves up in the world. It displays a contempt for the citizenry and eventually, if the policies shift far enough to the right without opposition, a playground for free market anarchists like Grover Norquist. It's class war, pure and simple, and the upper class are winning.  

Liberals with power to shift the narrative, instead fear the power and effectiveness of the Republican message and they don't trust citizens to consider progressive alternatives. All this tells me is that progressives don't fully trust in their own message or ideology. They don't have enough solid arguments to stand up for it. That's not just sad, it's pathetic. It's also not leadership, it's place-holding. It's why I'm not a Democrat and it's why I can't see myself voting for Obama again if he continues on this path, even if he's the only realistic choice next year. If Democrats can't argue or trust the concepts that have framed the ideology of their party for decades, then they need to step aside and let people in who can. 

Obama, in losing my vote - for years I was a self-professed pragmatic, moderate liberal - has really lost his way. I have been radicalized by the inaction of my representatives in Government. It wouldn't have taken much to placate me, just a solid push in communicating alternatives, but the void in Washington and the ubiquity of the far right message has overwhelmed the landscape, and a lot of progressives are feeling divorced from our representatives. 

There are clear and forthright messages out there - full of numbers and statistics and polls - pushing back hard against the Libertarian fantasies of the right enveloping our country, but they're largely confined to blogs and corners of the progressive movement. The Democratic leadership is not conveying it and Obama is not conveying it. I know the main message of his Administration has been 'let's get things done rather than bicker.' I know he feels that the only way to get things done is to compromise. I argued for this middle of the road approach for years on my blog, but looking at the conduct of the people elected to office and the massive sense of arrogant, rigid ideological entitlement displayed by people like Rand Paul, I feel that the rules have changed. Middle of the road compromise only works if you're working with people on both sides who are willing to abandon ideology for realism, abandon partisan taunting for compromise and fair play. In the current Washington climate, none of this applies. Obama and the Congress that would have done anything for him in 2008 should be stronger than they are, but their strategy of treating messengers of ideological rigidity and intolerance as friends and partners has failed.

Leadership isn't just assembling the best and the brightest to come up with agreed-upon solutions - it's also mastering a message that inspires people to follow along with your train of thought, even as you work through the details. Obama assumes too often that citizens harbor the same trust in certain institutions that he has. He should remember that everyday citizens in this country aren't sitting down at tables with them and working out deals with them. It is literally impossible for them to share his trust in moderation if they don't feel like part of the process. They still need a narrative to follow along with and process while waiting for the dust to settle, and again, he has been a void and arguably, a failure. This is not to say he has accomplished nothing, but none of his accomplishments will matter if he doesn't push back now.

Update: he pushed back... but is it too little, too late?

The words in today's speech should have been fiercely communicated from day one, and it may be too late. Both ends of the ideological spectrum have not been communicated with equal ferocity, and subsequently, the bold pronouncements of GOP leadership have taken hold in the American consciousness. It's too bad, too, because today's speech hit a lot of really good notes. Political repetition is an underused tool in Progressives' arsenal - they'd rather come up with 200 ways to say one thing in trying to appeal to 200 different kinds of people - but they need to find something brilliant to say, and say it 200 times.


Popular Posts