Election Results Portend Lessons in Leadership

To witness the whoopin ‘n hollerin, chortling, cavorting and self-righteous back-slapping of the Republicans, combined with the gnashing of teeth and cries of apocalyptic doom coming from the Democrats, one could easily assume that the recent midterm elections resulted in a seismic shift in American culture and government. That may be true, but don’t be so sure.

Before coming to such a conclusion, we should recognize that the results of this year’s midterm elections represent the norm, not the exception. Since Abraham Lincoln was president, the party holding the White House during a first term has lost House seats in every midterm election, except for 1902, 1934 and 2002. This means that Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and George W. Bush were the only presidents not to suffer Congressional losses in their first midterm election (Granlund cartoon used with permission).

Many are suggesting that the losses suffered by the Democratic Party combined with Obama’s low approval ratings signal that Barack will be a one-term president. That may be, but before that conclusion is drawn, one must remember that both Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Bill Clinton had lower public approval ratings than Obama, at the same time in their presidency. And, yet both went on to win rousing re-election and are considered saviors of their parties.

The “political experts” tell us that Republican control of the House, along with the rise of John Boehner as Speaker of the House, spells the end of the Obama program and presidency. But, before that conclusion can be accepted, one must remember that after the first midterm election of Bill Clinton’s presidency, he was faced with a new Republican majority in the House and the rise of the dogmatic and mercurial Speaker Newt Gingrich. (Compared to Gingrich, Boehner seems more like Mother Teresa.) Clinton had his greatest success as a president in that contentious environment. It also should be noted that at no time did the Republicans have control of Congress during Ronald Reagan’s two terms as president; and he is considered one of the most successful and effective presidents of our time.

So, one could argue that the best thing to happen to Obama since his election is the loss of Democratic control of the House. How can that be true?

Well, for one thing it is always easier to criticize than to create. If you are not in control, you cannot be held accountable. If you don’t have the job, you don’t have to do the work. It may be that the biggest challenge faced by Obama in his two years in office has not been the economy or terrorism, but the large Democratic majorities in Congress.

Complete control and power can (and did) lead to arrogance, aloofness and complacency. In many ways – whether intended or not – President Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid fell prey to the virus of power. It really became an attitude of “their way or the highway.” In a democracy, the greatest risk to power is power itself.

During the past two years the Republicans have been in the enviable position of being able to criticize without being accountable. They could bemoan the loss of jobs without having to offer a specific plan as to how to create them. The Republicans have been able to attack the bailouts of the auto, banking, insurance and mortgage industries without the requirement to offer an alternative or explain what would have happened had these industries collapsed. The Republicans have been in the enviable position of being able to call for tax cuts for the wealthy, while at the same time lament the rise in national debt. The Republicans were free to harangue for cuts in government spending, without the requirement to be specific. The Republicans had the luxury of resisting any and all reform of health care, without the obligation to offer an alternative to the status quo – which clearly was a broken system.

Now, all that has changed.

The media has proclaimed that the “honeymoon” for Obama is over. That may be true, but with full control of the House and the ability to block legislation in the Senate now in the hands of Republicans, clearly their “vacation” is over. The Republicans are now going to have to do more than criticize – they are going to have to actually lead. And they may well find that real leadership is not nearly as easy as they have led us to believe.

For example, many of the new members of the House and Senate – mostly the Tea Party backed candidates – were elected based on the promise to cut spending and reduce the national debt. A laudable objective, but easier promised than delivered.

Early in 2011, the government will reach its legal limit for national debt. Unless Congress votes to lift the ceiling, the government will be bankrupt and have to shut down. The ramifications of the U.S. Government defaulting or being unable to pay its debts – not only here in this country but worldwide – would be cataclysmic. And yet, many of the new Republican members of the house and Senate have promised the voters that they will not vote to raise the debt. The only way to avoid this conflict is to cut spending.

As Obama and the Democratic Congress have had to be specific regarding their plans during the past two years, so too will the Republicans have to be specific as to their plans. It is great that the Republicans want to cut spending and reduce the deficit – we can all agree to that goal. But, what will they do with their power?

Of the total Federal Budget, less than 40 percent ($1.4 trillion in 2010 budget.) is made up of discretionary spending. Of that amount, $844 billion goes to defense and Homeland Security, $84 billion for health care, education accounts for $47 billion, transportation $76 billion and energy $37 billion. Take a look at this budgetary pie chart and you’ll soon see how entitlements leave legislators scant wiggle room to pare spending.

Will the Republicans be true to their promises and be willing to take the heat (and take if off Obama) by proposing deep cuts in defense and a significant reduction in social security or health care benefits to seniors? Will the Republicans be willing to tell the parents of our country that their kids will be better off if we lop off a few billions of investment in education? Or, that it is better for us to remain dependent on foreign oil rather than invest in energy development?

The point here is not to indict or criticize the Republicans – the Democrats could be chastised as much if not more – but rather to highlight the challenges of leadership. Leadership calls for making decisions and being accountable.

Now in a position of leadership, the Republicans are in a conundrum. They either go back on their promise not to increase the national debt and vote against increasing the ceiling or they drastically cut spending in areas that will make them hugely unpopular with voters. One thing they know is that there will be another election in two short years.

This is not the first time this issue has come up. In 1995, Newt Gingrich and the Republican-controlled Congress refused to pass a budget that required an increase in the national debt ceiling. While the Republicans blamed Clinton for not being willing to accept cuts in the budget, the public blamed the Republicans for shutting down the government and Clinton’s popularity rose to its highest levels.

And the Moral of the Story …

The loss of Congressional control may be more a blessing than a curse for President Obama – and the country. Rather than being on the outside and free to criticize without accountability, the Republicans now have to share both the responsibility and accountability for leadership.

Power does not define leadership. Leadership is best tested and exposed when power is less than complete and challenged. True leaders emerge in times of conflict not compliance. As Reagan and Clinton before, Obama will have the opportunity to exhibit his leadership–or lack of it. In either event, it will now be easier for him to contrast his philosophy and leadership with what the Republicans have to offer, because now they will have to offer something other than promises.

The irony is that this loss of power by Obama could actually lead to increased power. If he exhibits true leadership he will join the leadership club of Reagan and Clinton. If he fails and is less the leader than we thought we elected, then he would rightly be relegated to the club of Carter. In any event, we should remember that as one politician (Republican, Democrat, it makes no difference) said, “Politics isn’t about big money or power games; it’s about the improvement of people’s lives.”

11 responses to “Election Results Portend Lessons in Leadership

  1. Great column, Mr. MacDonald!

    While I was very happy with the election results, I can only hope the GOP doesn’t mess up (again!) by going back on its word of what it will do while in power, as well as failing to lead effectively alongside President Obama. Hopefully this cycle’s results forces more bipartisanship, as witnessed with Clinton and Newt in the ’90s.

    I think Obama’s biggest problem was having complete control that wasn’t held accountable. As Sir Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

    Take care.

    – Ryan

    P.S. – I’m taking another one of your quotes and putting it on my door: “Power does not define leadership. Leadership is best tested and exposed when power is less than complete and challenged. True leaders emerge in times of conflict not compliance.” Brilliant stuff!

  2. Ryan … Thanks appreciate you taking time to read blog and make comments.


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