President Obama was called upon to lead and has utterly failed, and in less than two months. From the stimulus package that won't stimulate even Chris Matthews' leg, to the continuing series of ethically questionable political appointments, through an outrageous Congressional spending binge that included unfettered earmarks, he has passed on all the easy leadership opportunities. What will he do on the tougher issues?
Recall that the presidential race was a dead heat when the economic crisis hit last fall. Obama's legendary calm, cool, and collected manner was viewed as better for dealing with a crisis and he pulled ahead. We know now that this persona is a media-hyped marketing fiction devised by his campaign. His comical reliance on the teleprompter (at a rodeo!) has become the butt of late-night jokes, and in his unscripted moments he's like an unprepared high school debater fumbling for his lines.
The politician as leader has always been a curious formulation. Politicians are rarely leaders and yet that's what children are taught in school. Last fall's elections were viewed by teachers as an opportunity to show children that electing our leaders is the beauty of our democratic system.
At the local level -- the county board, mayors, township road commissioners, and tax assessors -- it's usually about competence rather than leadership. How else to explain Republican mayors elected in places like New York, despite an overwhelmingly Democrat electorate? Local politicians elevate social services above basic services to get elected and then find they can't pay for both. When basic services suffer, voters lose patience quickly. Mayor Daley in Chicago understands this better than just about anyone, with his laser focus on delivering city services efficiently. Indeed, it's how he has survived for twenty years in a city legendary for its corruption.
At the state or national level, try to name a senator or representative who's a true leader. It's likely to be no more than a handful of people. Most are elected because they reflect the views of their constituents, not because they've taken bold positions on controversial issues. Their own views of power and leadership can be sharply at odds with voters - Tom Daschle was defeated by his home state voters at the height of his power and influence as Senate Majority Leader, a fate that likely awaits Harry Reid.
It's the executive positions, the governors and the president, that occasionally call for leadership. But on those rare occasions, the media has the formulation almost exactly backward: leadership isn't something the voters give the candidate, it's something the candidate takes - and gets elected as a result. Winston Churchill's warnings about the need to defeat the Nazi menace sooner rather than later fell mostly on deaf ears, but he persisted in the face of ridicule by his countrymen. When the threat became real, his leadership was recognized and he was elected.
In the last 70 years, few presidents were truly called on by the people to lead. Roosevelt set the precedent that Obama now follows, which is that taking some kind of action, no matter how irresponsible and ineffective, or even destructive, is what counts. Ronald Reagan held to his conservative principles, even in the heyday of big-government liberalism, and won election eventually. His economic and foreign policy accomplishments set the stage for 25 years of almost uninterrupted prosperity and peace.
Can Obama still lead? He can -- his first 100 days (an artificial conceit if ever there were one) aren't even up yet -- but there's little reason for optimism. Obama touts pragmatism as his strength and explains pedantically that no core philosophy or guiding principles are needed, that he's open to all ideas. But most ideas so far reflect exclusively the Loony Left ideology, which has been rejected by voters repeatedly over decades, and the notion that the voters took a sharp Left turn in the last election is unsupported by either facts or polls. And Obama is now trying Chavez-style demagoguery as a proxy for leadership, attacking straw men with unusual vigor. He simply doesn't know what it means to be a leader.
Rising through the Chicago machine, Obama has taken the wrong lesson from Mayor Daley. He seems to be rehashing Michael Dukakis' old campaign slogan: "It's not about ideology, it's about competence." Obama's arguments about healthcare are truly alarming - he claims he can save enough money to insure the uninsured by having the government implement extraordinarily complex and expensive new computer systems and then manage the entire health care system more efficiently! It would be laughable if it wasn't so scary. It's another familiar refrain from the Left, that big-government programs aren't fundamentally flawed, they were just never properly administered. If Dukasis' defeat in the 1988 election showed anything, it was that it's all about ideology.
It's not that competence doesn't matter. The incompetence of the Obama administration is staggering and people are noticing. Hillary Clinton and the foreign policy appointees are not only naïve (negotiating with antisemitic haters) but embarrassingly clueless about basic protocol. Geithner has failed at Treasury, making his resignation almost a matter of time, and Obama should replace him while there are still prominent and trustworthy financial leaders willing to serve his administration. Rahm Emanuel sits around with the former Clinton political team drinking coffee and planning attacks on Rush Limbaugh, galvanizing the opposition. His juvenile antics were tolerable during the prosperous Clinton years but are disgusting in an economic crisis, yet no action from Obama to end it. In fact, they convinced Obama it was in his interest to attack Limbaugh!
It's a shame. Obama entered office with tremendous political capital, more than any president in recent memory, but has squandered much of it in a remarkably short time. He's like the factory worker who won the lottery and allowed his teenage children (Pelosi and Reid) to lose most of the money on a drunken gambling binge. He still has some left but how will he use it? Sadly, his political capital is likely to go the way of most of the bailout money -- a sad waste of a grand opportunity.