You have to hand it to Barack Obama. He is treating us to lesson after lesson about how not to exercise leadership. If you are really interested in how not to do it, then Obama’s your man.
By now, most people seem to have gotten the message. No one really believes in the charade any more.
When Obama exercises the full measure of his commander-in-chief authority by authorizing missile attacks against a notably unsavory tyrant, the American people give him the equivalent of a Bronx cheer.
According to a new poll: “Only 17 percent of Americans see President Barack Obama as a strong and decisive military leader, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken after the United States and its allies began bombing Libya.
“Nearly half of those polled view Obama as a cautious and consultative commander-in-chief and more than a third see him as indecisive in military matters.” Link here.
If the Obama PR mavens believed that ordering a missile attack would make him look more presidential and more in command, they are doubtless scurrying back to the drawing board.
Peggy Noonan gets to the heart of Obama’s leadership deficit in a column today: “Now he seems incompetent and out of his depth in foreign and military affairs. He is more observed than followed, or perhaps I should say you follow him with your eyes and not your heart. So it's funny he'd feel free to launch and lead a war, which is what this confused and uncertain military action may become.” Link here.
Note the wonderful phrase: “… more observed than followed….” It does not signify leadership. It describes someone who is playing at being a leader, who is pretending, who is acting the role. As I wrote in my post “Why Are We Bombing Libya?” it looks like political theatre.
Noonan is a speechwriter by trade, so she thinks of leadership in terms of the kind of speech that a president should give. She knows, as you do, that there is more to leadership than giving speeches, but when you undertake momentous kinetic military action you need to explain yourself to those you want to follow your lead.
Even more so when you work for them.
In Noonan’s words: “Which gets me to Mr. Obama's speech, the one he hasn't given. I cannot for the life of me see how an American president can launch a serious military action without a full and formal national address in which he explains to the American people why he is doing what he is doing, why it is right, and why it is very much in the national interest. He referred to his aims in parts of speeches and appearances when he was in South America, but now he's home. More is needed, more is warranted, and more is deserved. He has to sit at that big desk and explain his thinking, put forward the facts as he sees them, and try to garner public support. He has to make a case for his own actions. It's what presidents do! And this is particularly important now, because there are reasons to fear the current involvement will either escalate and produce a lengthy conflict or collapse and produce humiliation.
“Without a formal and extended statement, the air of weirdness, uncertainty and confusion that surrounds this endeavor will only deepen.”
No statement to the American people. No consultations with Congress. Just who does Barack Obama think he is?
At the least, he is not acting as though he is the President of the United States.
You cannot lead if no one is following you, and no one follows a leader without having some idea of where the leader is going and how he is going to get there.
Some Americans voted for Barack Obama because they believed that he had superior rhetorical skills and an especially capacious intellect. Everyone is entitled to a mistake.
But, at a time when rhetorical skills might come in handy, the president seems to be unwilling to use them to explain what he is doing.
Those who were seduced into defending candidate Obama because they were convinced that the nation needed a leader with superior intelligence should now be lining up to apologize to the nation.
There are a number of possible explanations for why Obama has not given the speech.
1. He doesn’t know why he is doing what he is doing.
2. He knows what he is doing but would rather not have to explain it because it would make him look bad.
3. He doesn’t care what the American people think. Or better, he does not think that they know how to think.
4. He doesn’t care what the Congress thinks. All that they can do is interfere with him.
5. He doesn’t have to explain himself, so, why should he. Barack Obama has spent his life getting away with things; why should he not keep on doing as he has always done.
6. He has a coterie of flunkies, enablers, and satraps who are perfectly willing to explain it all for him.
We have a half-dozen possible explanations. Most likely, the ultimate truth contains something from each of them.
Clearly, Obama is making it up as he goes along. He is not sure whether his policy is regime change or humanitarian relief. He is not sure who is really in charge.
While the humanitarian angle tugs at our heartstrings, the same principle does not seem to apply in other similar situations around the world.
Telling the nation why we are bombing Libya would entail, for someone with intellectual integrity, explaining why we are not bombing Syria or Iran or the Sudan.
Of course, if it’s all a lot of political theatre, where Kadhafi is sacrificed to make Obama look like a decisive commander, this is clearly not something that a president wants to communicate to the nation.
Of course, we can all imagine that the spin meisters in the White House could come up with some semi-cogent arguments for the intervention. But if Obama goes on national television to deliver them in a speech, how can we guarantee that he will not smirk and give the game away.
If Obama does not really care what the American people think about all of it or what the American Congress might say, he can probably rationalize his way around it by telling himself that his cause is so righteous and so just that everyone will naturally support it, without questions and without objections.
On the other hand, if your cause is so righteous and just, you should not really have any trouble explaining yourself.
If similar thoughts are passing through Obama’s mind, that would make him pathetically naïve and excessively imperious.
Then again, Obama does not seem to see himself as the American president. He sees himself as King of the World, as a trans-national figure who need but gain the approval of the United Nations.
Obama went to the UN and not the United States Congress or the American people because he must have felt that the U.N. was his true constituency.
If he did not feel it, then he certainly acted as though he did.
As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than sentiments.
A leader who does not explain himself to his followers is disrespectful. He is treating his followers as automata who will simply follow his lead because he is the leader.
But then, some people do not explain themselves because they can get away it. Why take the risk of setting your policy in stone when most people are perfectly willing to let you make it up as you go along?
When you fail to explain yourself because you can get away with not explaining yourself, that does not make you a leader. It makes you a spoiled brat.
So, we are being led by a leader who disrespects the American people, who does not seem to know what he is doing, and who feels that he is King of he World.
One has to assume that Obama has not overcome his notable lack of executive experience.
A true executive knows that the effective implementation of policy depends on a motivated work force. A motivated work force feels like it is part of the process of setting policy and strategy. Then, it will see itself as an active participant in a mission it accepts
A weak and incompetent executive believes that leadership is about giving orders. He believes that when leader says: Jump, everyone will jump.
This jejune attitude is what you would know about leadership if your frame of reference was the world of fiction, whether from television or movies or books.
Leadership is a difficult topic for intellectuals, historians, and novelists because their work does not involve it.
When the cognoscenti and the literati write the final version of history, too often they can do no better than to communicate their deficient understanding of history. Then, a bright young novice like Barack Obama will come along and mistake the fiction for the real thing.