Leadership or Political Theater?

David M. Abshire (Ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 1983-1987) and Christopher O. Howard

Cross-posted from Ambassador Abshire and Mr. Howard’s March 19, 2013 op-ed in the Latin American Herald Tribune.

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In the midst of an unprecedented outreach to Republicans, President Obama recently took time to speak to his rump campaign organization, which has been retooled to pursue an equally unprecedented effort: turning history on its head, retaking the House of Representatives for the Democrats in 2014, and making those same Republicans irrelevant. Either initiative would be audacious. Together, they suggest not leadership, but hesitancy.

A few weeks ago, we found ourselves discussing leadership with a distinguished group of historians and journalists. The occasion was a CSPC seminar on “The Lessons and Legacy of President Dwight D. Eisenhower” hosted in cooperation with the Eisenhower Foundation. The singular insight from the conversation was that an important component of Eisenhower’s success as President was the universal respect for the President, the Presidency, and elected leaders of Congress that was then the norm, independent of party affiliation. This respect produced an ethic of followership: Members of the House and Senate were not just national leaders, but also followers of the President and of the Congressional leadership they, themselves, selected. This empowered Eisenhower to work with Congressional leaders to do the nation’s business, hold back the Soviet Union, invest in the future, and build a strong, sustainable American economy.

To be effective – as leaders or followers – elected officials need legitimacy. Eisenhower had it. Thanks to the Constitution and a tradition of free elections, most elected officials throughout American history have had it. Now things are different. From the day a would-be public servant announces his or her candidacy, opponents attack on all fronts – from their qualifications and abilities to their honesty and motives. By election time, even the winners have been so badly tarred they don’t enjoy the full respect and trust of their new constituents.

No such winner can feel safe taking the risks that real leadership, and real statesmanship, requires. Instead, successful politicians are pulled hard to keep tending their base. Rather than leaders, too many newly elected officials become mere conduits for the most vocal, active, and invariably extreme members of their party. The result is that leaders of both parties, in both Houses of Congress, struggle even to control their caucuses, let alone lead them. Our nation suffers not just from a leadership deficit, but a crisis of followership.

Which brings us back to the President’s chimerical new leaf. As much as any of his predecessors, President Obama has been determined to shape his legacy by learning from the lessons of history. To this end, he even had a series of private White House dinners with leading historians. That makes his 2014 quest for the House of Representatives particularly quixotic. Bill Clinton has been the only President since James Madison to see his party gain House seats during his sixth year in office. And even Clinton – a popular Democratic President under attack from an unpopular Republican House majority – could only net four of the 11 seats he needed. Obama needs 17! That’s not applying the lessons of history.

The President’s so-called Charm Offensive, on the other hand, may show the agility and flexibility that effective leaders use to upset their opponents’ equilibrium. Or it may be a cynical ploy to buy time. The question is what happens next. Can the President listen, learn, and adapt? The Clintonian approach of adopting Republican ideas no longer works. Republicans who cooperate with it get punished by party activists – “primaried” from the right no matter how conservative they were. But this does not excuse the President from the burdens of leadership. It obligates him to find a new way to lead that is right for today’s challenges.

Obama dislikes politicking and negotiating and given the evidence thus far, really isn’t very good at it. Worse, he fears himself so politically “toxic” that his very involvement in the negotiation process could destroy it. On the other hand, the 12 Republican Senators with whom he had dinner last week reportedly told him that the only chance for success is if he is directly and continually involved; without him, it will fail. We parse this to mean that it is not the President himself who is toxic, but the way he has worked – bouncing back and forth from trying to impose unilateral “compromises” that likely will poison any Republican who goes along, to throwing up his arms and treating Congress as if there is a pox on both its Houses.

President Obama needs to take ownership of the negotiations without taking control of them. He does not need to be involved as an adversarial party, he merely needs to be involved, so he should follow his instincts and leave the haggling to the legislators. His job – and only he can do it – is to provide a center of gravity for a process that too often veers off on political and policy tangents. By leading the talks, he sends a message to Congress and the country that he is committed, this is serious, and results are expected. By being an honest broker, he helps find alternatives and craft compromises. But those options won’t have his name on them, so neither side loses face by accepting them. As a mediator, he allows both sides to own their own ideas and win a fair share of political victories. Most important, by providing leadership, he can keep the conversation focused and on track.

Regardless, the President must make a decision. Lead now or put the nation back on hold and hope against hope for a miracle in 2014. Feedback from last week’s dinner sets the challenge: will the President continue leading or was this all there is? It’s not enough to say “I’m open, let’s talk.” Great leaders always find a way to garner the followers they need, no matter the circumstances. President Obama’s legacy as a leader will be decided in the next few weeks, not two years from now.

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