Thursday, February 25, 2010

The New York Times Portrays Obama as Weak and Ineffectual

Jennifer Rubin called it: "a rather jaw-dropping look at the inability of Obama to do his job." Link here.

She was referring to Sheryl Gay Stolberg's New York times article on Obama's leadership style... or better, his lack of same. Entitled, "Gentle White House Nudges Test the Power of Persuasion," it provides evidence that, even in the New York Times, truth eventually will out. Link here.

The Times has never gone out of its way to make Obama look bad. Quite the contrary. It has been a tireless cheerleader for him. Now, however, Stolberg shows us how a weak and ineffectual president failed to fashion an agreement on health care with Democratic leaders in the House and Senate.

Since this meeting took place a mere five days before Scott Brown won a Senate seat from Massachusetts , it offers a glimpse into the last real effort to pass health care reform.

Stolberg opens her article with the picture of Obama, at 1:00 a.m. trying to provoke agreement by making a grand, theatrical gesture and walking out of the meeting.

Which raises an important question: what if you, the putative leader, left a meeting and no one noticed?

However much Stolberg tries to spin it, the gesture was empty theatrics, not true leadership.

It reminds us of John McCain's suspending his presidential campaign to rush back to Washington to deal with the financial crisis. With a single empty gesture McCain managed to make Obama look presidential.

No small feat that.

As for the January meeting reported by Stolberg, I will mention that there were no Republicans present. It was Obama with members of his own party.

You do not have to do too much in depth analysis to figure out that if Obama cannot exercise leadership over the senior members of his own party, he can hardly be expected to work effectively with the opposition party or even independents.

While reporting on the debacle, Stolberg tries to put the best face on it. She describes a leader who is just too darned nice, just too smart, too good, and too easy-going to deal with the semi-corrupt curmudgeons that make up the Democratic Congressional leadership.

Of course, sometimes you can lead by nudging and cajoling people. At other times you have to be more forceful and direct. What you cannot do is lead by imitating leaders. Because then, you will simply not know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.

As I said, the fact that Lyndon Johnson had a specific leadership style does not mean that the same style will work for Obama. Ronald Reagan was an effective leader; so was Bill Clinton. They had different styles; they led in different ways.

If Obama had studied Lyndon Johnson's leadership style and had seen that it involved throwing an arm around a Senator's shoulder, drawing him in close, and whispering sweet threats in his ear... if he had seen that and concluded that he needed merely to do the same with a recalcitrant senator you would find the exercise risible.

Lyndon Johnson had spent years in the Senate; he was the majority leader. He had made deal after deal with his fellow senators; he had worked closely with them on bill after bill; they were his friends and colleagues.

When LBJ threw an arm around someone's shoulder it was not just some community organizer throwing just any arm around just any Senator's shoulder

When it comes to leadership substance always trumps style. More than that, the proof of leadership does not lie in the ability to wave your hand this way and that; it does not lie in soaring rhetoric or soft touches. The proof of effective leadership lies in getting things done, in a well-organized group.

If a leader is asleep at his desk while his company is humming along efficiently and effectively, he is a capable leader. To observe that scene and conclude that you can become a great leader by napping at your desk is fatuous.

Of course, Stolberg is trying to paint a picture of someone who is too good to lead. If you read the article closely, you will see that one primary reason is that Obama is perceived, by members of his own party, as functionally weak.

In fact, the charge of weakness hands over the article like a fog. People spend so much time denying that Obama is weak that you end up thinking that it must be true.

To me it feels like Obama is a man who does not wear his suit; he is being worn by his suit. He does not seem to know who he is and where he is. When Stolberg compares his leadership style to marriage counseling, bells should have gone off in everyone's mind.

I pass over the fact that Obama has no experience as a marriage counselor. Unless he is preparing himself for a new career-- as a same-party marriage counselor-- you wonder why he does not understand that a meeting to negotiate a compromise on health care has nothing to do with reconciling feuding spouses.

Of course, some people believe that Obama is really an aspiring autocrat. They believe that he does not want to work with Congress on health care or any other legislation, but wants to impose his will on it. Obama will negotiate with any petty tyrant or tin horn dictator; he draws the line, not just at Republicans, but at Congressional Democrats. Could it be that he sees himself in the company of autocrats more than he sees himself in the company of Democrats.

Some might even say that his timidity and general weakness belie a ferocious will to power.

As it happens, the question does come up in Stolberg's article. She quotes Obama's advisor David Axelrod explaining that in our political system Obama cannot simply impose his will on everyone else. He has to work with them, however ill-suited he is for the task.

Does this mean that Obama aspires to the role? Not entirely, but it certainly highlights the fact that, given Obama's lack of leadership skills, imposing his will on the country is probably the only way he will ever get anything done.

Why would he so thoroughly misinterpret the message of the Massachusetts Senate election and not drop his health care reform effort, but double down by wasting the nation's time and attention on a health care summit?

And if you watch the summit-- I saw a few glimpses of it-- you will see that Obama is not even well suited to lead the summit. He acts more like a professor than a political leader. He is conducting a seminar, not a summit. He is trying to give people a teachable moment, not a sense that politicians are getting together to do business.

And he is showing the world the one thing that he believes above and beyond all else... that he did not cause the election defeat, that it was not his fault, but that he has merely been misunderstood.

Anyone who thinks that Obama's failure to lead involves Republican intransigence should read Sheryl Gay Stolberg in the New York Times.


Robert Pearson said...

I had the pleasure of reading through some of your archives and other articles outside of the blog. A breath of fresh air and sanity, they have inspired me to get back to writing about something besides chess. I'll send a link soon.

Many thanks!


Stuart Schneiderman said...

My thanks to you, Robert. I will look forward to receiving the link and reading you.