There is a Reason Why Politicians Disappoint Us as Leaders

Politics Calls for Coyness While Leadership Demands Boldness

There is a growing number of formerly passionate Obama enthusiasts who are expressing disappointment about his leadership abilities. And it is this discontent – not the dismal state of the economy – that could become the primary threat to his reelection.

Disconsolate supporters see Obama as someone who had promised to change the system, but instead has been neutered by it. Probably the most telling evidence of Obama’s reduced cache of leadership is the “before-and-after” portrait that is emerging. Before Obama took office he was being favorably compared to Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. But now after a couple years of observation, there are loud whispers suggesting that he is more like a graduate of the Jimmy Carter School of failed leadership.

Should we be surprised? Not really.

Those who crafted the structure of our government installed at its core an unambiguous “separation of powers.” The intent of this construction was to thwart strong leadership; especially strong executive leadership. Having recently risked their very lives in an effort to throw off the yoke of British monarchy, the Founding Fathers were paranoid about any government in America that even hinted at strong executive leadership. (Most of the Founding Fathers believed that the elected legislature should be the preeminent power in the government and even proposed that the executive branch should be made up of a rotating “committee” of five members.)

As a result, the leadership performance of Obama should be viewed more as the norm than an exception. Still, this does not absolve Obama of his lackluster performance. After all, it was he who created the expectation that he was the exception—not the norm. Typical politicians promise only to “fix the system.” Obama, on the other hand, bravely promised to change the system. Even though the system needed change (and still does), implementing change is a formidably tall order, because the system itself is structured to resist change; and despite what most people will say, they are uncomfortable with change.

Looking Back in History

It could be argued that in the history of our country only three presidents – Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt – exhibited the leadership qualities needed to actually change the system. Lincoln, of course, eliminated the system of slavery. Teddy Roosevelt used anti-trust litigation (to get around Congress) and consumer protection legislation to tilt the focus of government from economic laissez faire to a more balanced “free market” approach. FDR redefined the very nature of government by implementing an economic and social services “safety net” as a responsibility of government.

Looking back on these changes now, they are seen as visionary and necessary. The continuation of slavery would surely have led to the dissolution of the union. TR’s (at right)  bully pulpit regulation of business and the breakup of monopolies opened up economic opportunity for millions and set the stage for American economic superiority. FDR’s expansion of government services, along with the adoption of social safety nets, i.e. Social Security, saved the American economic system from collapsing in on itself.

But here’s the important takeaway: Each and every one of these changes was met with passionate, vitriolic debate and resistance. The most consistent criticism was that each of these presidents had exceeded their authority and that their actions were unconstitutional. And indeed much of this constitutional criticism was correct, as several pieces of legislation forced by FDR were later ruled unconstitutional, but only after they had served their purpose. Moreover, despite withering criticism, each of these presidents understood that tinkering with a broken system using “tweaks” and “fixes” would not do; in order to save the system, the system itself needed to be restructured.

These presidents were successful in their efforts and are recognized today as outstanding leaders for two reasons: they offered bold solutions to the problems of the country and went directly to the people for support. And therein is the problem with Obama’s leadership. His words were bold and his connection with the people was electric, but his actions have been anything but. Obama’s election as the first African-American president is clear evidence of his ability to connect with and inspire people, but the most often refrain heard from those who voted for him is, “Where is the Obama we voted for?”

Once in office, Obama fell in lockstep with other politicians who game the system, rather than change the game. Obama may take credit for passing health care reform, but he abdicated to Congress the structure and design of a system that turned into an ill-defined monstrosity that no one seems to like.

To compound the problem, Obama lobbied Congress and not the people for its passage. As a result, the majority of people never understood or supported his efforts. Obama may not have succeeded, but he would have exhibited stronger leadership if he had presented his own bold plan for health care reform and then gone directly to the people to explain and solicit their support.

Entering office at the most frightening moment of the economic crisis, Obama acquiesced to the desires of a Congress dominated by moneyed interests to “stimulate” the economy by pouring a trillion dollars into the very institutions – banks, investment firms, insurance companies and poorly managed corporations – that caused the crisis. It was folly – not bold leadership – to believe that these companies would put the money into the economy and not in their own pockets. As FDR did with his New Deal, bold leadership would have been to “bailout” the people, not the corporations. (Oh I forgot, Mitt Romney tells us corporations are people too!)

Still Another Painful Example

The most recent disgusting and frustrating debate over extension of the national debt limit is another example of the opportunity for bold leadership gone begging for want of a father. Rather than allowing a broken system to painfully grind out a sausage of solution that satisfied no one, a bold leader would have taken daring action and gone to the people for support. (FDR did not have the authority to close the banks to stem fear of failure, but he did.)

Obama could have boldly stepped up and invoked 14th Amendment provisions to unilaterally raise the debt limit (President Harry Truman did it once during his presidency after Congress was unable to pass a bill to raise the debt ceiling). At the same time, he could have offered specific, dramatic plans to curb spending and reduce the national debt and then taken his case directly to the people. If he had, the short-term problem would have been solved and the real debate defined. But he didn’t.

Sure, critics would have howled in complaint and there would have been cries that Obama had exceeded his authority and that his actions were unconstitutional, but there would have been no questions regarding his capacity for leadership.

And the Moral of the Story …

It is no coincidence that most of the heroes of leadership come from the business or military sectors of society. Companies and armies are structured with a top-down mentality that fosters and expects strong leadership from the top. Leaders still must lead and deliver, but they start with the authority to do so. On the other hand, the American political system is structured with a bottom-up mentality combined with a natural trepidation for strong leaders. This creates the conundrum of the people seeking strong, bold leaders while the very nature of our political system seeks to limit and suppress the power and authority of our leaders.

As such, we should not be surprised or disappointed when politicians use opinion polls so they can tell us what we want to hear, rather than what we need to hear. Successful politicians deal in platitudes not plans. They talk broadly of change but propose only “fixes” because they know that even if elected, they lack the formal power to implement real change.

The history of our country has shown that it is extremely rare for an individual to have the ability to be successful working within the political system AND to have the boldness of leadership that allows them to actually change the system. Because of this, most politicians survive by pandering to our most base expectations. President Obama is obviously a successful politician, but he created a problem for himself when instead of pandering to our expectations, he sought to raise them by promising to be a game changer; and thus far has failed to prove he has the ability to do so.


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