The president’s recent disappointing oval office speech elicited a chorus of criticism from across the political spectrum. For some reason the speech seems to have put a spotlight on the president as a leader, whereas other misjudgments in which he was directly involved in making policy had not. The oil spill, which was certainly no fault of Mr. Obama, seems to have finally caused the public and many of his cheerleaders among the pundits to focus on the president’s substance and not his style. That has been the unspoken, elephant-in- the-room, concern throughout his presidency, his aptitude for leadership. We are reminded of the lead-in lyrics to the signature song Ethel Merman belts out in Gypsy… “Curtain up…light the lights…you either got it…or you ain’t.”
President Obama seems to have the curtain up, light the lights part down pat. The dramatic campaign and convention stage sets, his world photo-op tours, his big oval-office backdrop to his little oval-office speech, and his ever-masterful use of the teleprompter have all produced a “strike-up-the-band” expectation whenever and wherever he appears. It’s the “you either got it, or you ain’t” part that seems finally to have focused the public on the president’s aptitude for leadership.
The befouling glob that threatens hundreds of miles of coast or, as Peggy Noonan put it recently so aptly in the Wall Street Journal, “the monster from under the sea,” seems to be a metaphor for the president’s inability to shape the world as he wants it to be. Speeches are not a substitute for coherent policy. The president, with the entire world watching his prime time speech, essentially punted. He pulled from the presidential duck-and-cover arsenal the time-tested, yawn producer of presidents bereft of solutions to all manner of problems…the formation of a new blue-ribbon commission. This was the cornerstone of his “battle plan” to face down the “siege” of big oil’s attack on our Gulf coast.
There is nothing more to be said about the quality of Mr. Obama’s oval-office speech debut. It seems as if all the commentators from Chris Mathews, Keith Olberman and Jon Stewart on the left, to Mark Steyn, Charles Krauthammer and Karl Rove on the right have already done that. Besides, there is something much more revealing that is apparent here. It isn’t about the delivery by the man who gave the speech; it is, rather, about the man who delivered the speech. The disappointing oval-office moment was more than just a lack of writing skill by some wordsmith presidential speechwriter; it focused the attention of the American people on the man himself and on what they hoped just wasn’t so; an apparent lack of the leadership aptitude which a president must possess if he or she is to succeed.
The evidence of weak leadership skills was there before but it became shrouded in the president’s rock star image. The fact is that there was very little about Barack Obama’s pre-presidential career that suggested any real aptitude for leadership. There was always plenty of “curtain up, light the lights” but the demonstration of leadership part was always a bit like a clock striking thirteen. That is to say, not quite reassuring.
His career as a legislator in Illinois, while always well hyped, was less than impressive. His biggest legislative achievement in Illinois seems to be the nearly 130 times he chose to vote “present” rather than “yea” or “nay” on major bills. And yes, we’ve heard or read the standard excuse for this apparent ambivalence. “It’s the way things are often done in the Illinois Senate,” we’re told. But since when has doing things the way they are done in Illinois met the definition of leadership anywhere outside of that state.
Besides, some of the “present” votes then state-Senator Obama chose to cast while in the Illinois legislature are quite revealing, if not troubling. For example, in 1999 he was faced with a difficult vote, to support a bill that would let some juveniles be tried as adults. Understandably, many African-Americans were opposed to the bill. On the other hand, Mr. Obama was trying to hone an image of a tough-on crime candidate. It was a difficult political call for him; so, he voted “present.”
According to the New York Times, on at least 36 occasions state-Senator Obama was either the only state senator to vote “present” or was part of a group of six or fewer to vote that way. Politically, the option to vote “present” provides a certain amount of cover. It is a way for the faint of heart, in effect, to say, “I don’t particularly like this bill, but I don’t want to take the political risk of taking a stand.”
The juvenile crime bill was to allow offenders as young as 15 to be prosecuted as adults if charged with committing a crime with a firearm on, or near, schools. Both houses passed the measure handily. State-Senator Obama justified his “present” vote by opining there was no proof that increasing penalties for young offenders reduced crime. Mr. Obama’s aides said he was more concerned about whether the bill would be effective rather than with its political consequences. They did not explain, however, why he did not just vote “no”.
There were other “present” votes, in which part-time law-lecturer Obama, according to the New York Times, said he had concerns about the constitutionality or effectiveness of some provisions. Among those, Mr. Obama did not vote “yea” or “nay” on a bill that would allow certain victims of sex crimes to petition judges to seal court records relating to their cases. He also voted “present” on a bill to impose stricter standards for evidence a judge is permitted to consider in imposing a criminal sentence.
On the sex crime bill, Mr. Obama cast the lone “present” vote in a 58-to-0 vote. When it appeared that this vote might become an issue in the presidential race Mr. Obama’s campaign said he believed that the bill violated the First Amendment. The bill had passed 112-0-0 in the Illinois House and 58-0-1 in the state Senate. Again, why didn’t he just vote, “no”?
In 2000, Mr. Obama was one of two senators who voted present on a bill on whether facts not presented to a jury could later be the basis for increasing an offender’s sentence beyond the ordinary maximum. The bill sailed through both chambers. Out of 174 votes cast in the House and Senate, two were against and two were “present”, including Mr. Obama’s. Mr. Obama’s campaign said he voted present to register his dissatisfaction with how the bill was put together. He believed (hold on to your hat) the bill was rushed to the floor and that lawmakers were deprived of time to consider it. Oddly, this hasn’t been a problem for the president with bills passed in the House and Senate of the United States.
The Times also reported that Mr. Obama was the sole “present” vote on a bill that easily passed the Illinois Senate that would require teaching respect for others in schools. He also voted “present” on a measure to prohibit sex-related shops from opening near schools or places of worship, which ultimately did not pass the Illinois Senate. In both of those cases, his campaign said (hold on to your hat again) he was trying to avoid mandates on local authorities. This from, now, President Obama, who has gone on, arguably, to impose the greatest funded and unfunded mandates on local authorities in the nation’s history.
But enough of ancient history. Fast forward to the centerpiece of his first year in office, health-care reform. Many on the left, and even some on the right, suggest that this massive legislative “achievement” is proof that President Obama is a formidable leader. We beg to differ. It may, indeed, prove that Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority leader Harry Reid can effectively lead their party’s foot soldiers over any cliff they choose, but it really doesn’t say much about President Obama’s leadership aptitude. Quite the opposite. Apparently misreading the lessons of President Clinton’s terribly misdirected attempt at health-care reform, President Obama delegated the entire effort to Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid. He sat by as they cobbled together (in his name) the horrific 2700-page health-care reform legislation that a substantial majority of the people consistently said they did not want and consistently continue to say they now want repealed and which a third of the states are now fighting to stop in federal court. Real leadership of the type he promised, but apparently cannot deliver, would have brought both sides together instead of putting the nation through some of the worst acrimony we can ever remember.
The curtains up…light the lights first-day-in-office announcement that the prison housing terrorists at Guantanamo Bay would be closed within a year, was an early lesson that Ruffles and Flourishes without leadership aptitude is, well, just music. The world apology tour for American foreign policy under the Bush Administration, the Cairo speech, the presidential outstretched hand to our adversaries and the long-lapsed ultimatum for a reciprocal handshake in return, the puzzling back of the hand treatment to Britain, our closest friend since the end of World War II, the insulting treatment of our friends such as South Korea, Columbia, Honduras, and Israel, and the skyrocketing spending and the attendant ever-mounting deficits all call into question the aptitude for leadership that prevails (or is absent) at the White House.
Les Gelb wrote of Obama, “He is so self-confident that he believes he can make decisions on the most complicated of issues after only hours of discussion. Strategic decisions go well beyond being smart, which Obama certainly is. They must be based on experience that discerns what works, what doesn’t — and why. This requires experienced staffing, which Obama and his top appointees simply do not seem to have.” Mr. Obama is beginning to look to more and more of the people who were dazzled by his meteoric rise and who were looking for the political equivalent of a messiah, as a growing disappointment. It turns out that Mr. Obama cannot by his charm, his gift-of-gab, his oratorical skills and his considerable intelligence will into reality policies that the people won’t accept and that many across the political spectrum here and abroad seriously question.
Which brings us full circle back to where we began… the growing fiasco that continues to assault the gulf coast. “What could the President have done to avoid the blowout at the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform?” the Administration’s defenders indignantly ask. Nothing. But that is the wrong question. The more telling question would be “what could the President have done to mitigate the damage?” And the answer to that seems to be, “plenty.”
He had the authority to waive the ridiculous and long-outdated, protectionist Jones Act that would have allowed significant expertise and siphoning capacity to be on location in the Gulf weeks ago mitigating the damage that now seems unstoppable. But, so as not to offend labor unions or domestic shipping interests, he turned down the offers. He could have immediately authorized Governor Bobby Jindal to begin deploying barriers parallel to the gulf coast as the governor was begging for permission to do (and for which he was still begging last week). He could, and should, have immediately designated the most operationally competent person he could find to take charge of containment operations and to report progress to him on a daily basis.
Instead, seven weeks into this debacle, when discussing why safety precautions were not in place, Mr. Obama assured the American people “that he wants to know why.” Of course, the answer he will soon provide is quite predictable since we have heard it many times before. The problem, we will be told, rests with the previous Administration. Blaming Bush, or industry or political opposition seems to be his answer for every problem. “I inherited this mess,” he often tells us. In short, the President is not providing the leadership one would expect from a chief executive running the country. Instead, he has responded as one would expect from a chief executive running a think tank.
Enough curtain up…light the lights. The curtain has been up and the lights have been lighted since January 20th, 2009. Show us you got it, Mr. President. Not that you ain’t.
By Hal Gershowitz and Stephen Porter