Problem-Solvers and Butt-Kickers

Political analysts may divide the world into liberals and conservatives, while theologians may distinguish religionists from non-believers. As the coarseness of our president's recent public rhetorical flourish continues to resonate, sociologists might also want to individuate two types of leadership models: the Problem-Solver and the "Butt-Kicker" (hereafter, the "Solver" and the "Blamer"). Tragically, America now has a team of Blamers sitting in the Oval Office at an epoch when our nation needs -- more than we have needed for a century -- Solvers.

The Solver does not focus on affixing blame in a crisis, even though she may have to demand a resignation. Rather, she seeks to fix mistakes productively and to propel her universe forward constructively. President Barack Obama came to us as an Unknown. We the American people elected him to be our chief executive, effectively the senior executive of the free world. During the presidential campaign, we heard Mr. Obama blame, but we inferred that insurgent campaign puffery necessarily entails casting aspersions against the incumbent class. Indeed, Hillary Clinton sought to leverage public unease when she ran her much-lampooned television commercial depicting a White House telephone ringing in the presidential bedroom past midnight. We still did not enjoy a tangible sense of how Mr. Obama handles crises. 

At her memorable acceptance speech during the 2008 Republican Convention, GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin contrasted her duties as governor of Alaska and, before that, as six-year mayor of Wasilla, a small city in that state, with those of Obama: "I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities." An executive bearing the responsibility to get things done -- not merely to joust with problems intellectually, but actually to get them repaired rapidly -- gains experience both in failure and in success. Although an executive sometimes must say "You're fired!" she also has to know how to identify, attract, recruit, and motivate excellent people to get mistakes fixed. In the end, we want our president not only to say "The buck stops here," but also to mean it. Unfortunately, our president comes to his office without such senior executive skills, and we are now paying dearly on many fronts as he learns on the job. Eighteen months have demonstrated that he is methodical and not a quick study.

We know very little about Mr. Obama, and he has protected the mysteries of his personal narrative. That privacy clearly has suited him well because the news media, America's traditional muckraking and light-shedding Fourth Estate, have acquiesced. We know little about his college studies or what he wrote in his senior thesis. We know that he attended Harvard Law School, became President of the Harvard Law Review, and later taught a dozen years at University of Chicago Law School. Atypically, Mr. Obama attained and transitioned through those law school positions despite a record profoundly barren of legal publishing. For almost anyone else in America to be regarded as a serious candidate for a law school professorship, it is a sine qua non that one must have published significant original legal research in respected law journals -- or otherwise have served a distinguished legal or legislative career. Mr. Obama somehow eluded that prerequisite. He was elected to the United States Senate after a California divorce-court judge, mid-way through the Senate race, unsealed papers filed in his GOP opponent's messy divorce. The Illinois papers published the accusations, shaming Republican Jack Ryan into dropping out of the Senate race. Similarly, Blair Hull, Obama's earlier opponent in that campaign's Democrat primary, was beaten by the publication of messy divorce papers. Mr. Obama became a senator, but he had not been tested in crisis.

Experienced political executives, like former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter and former Texas Governor George W. Bush, stumbled badly in office at times. Other experienced executives, like former New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt and former California Governor Ronald Reagan, mostly thrived. However, even they stumbled. Thus, the presidency is not only about directing the ship through the predictable, and mobilizing activists for "change you can believe in," but it ultimately rises or falls on the senior executive skills implemented in the face of grave crisis. James Madison, for all his intellect and writing skills, had to guide the nation through the incineration of the White House and the near-fall of the republic during the War of 1812. Abraham Lincoln, for all his spritely wit, had to deal patiently with one after another Union general, riding out the mercurial George McClellan, the unprepared Joseph Hooker, and the disappointing Benjamin Meade. Lincoln never looked to "kick general butt"; rather, he focused on finding a man who shared his vision and plan to get the job done. Then, once the Union was preserved, Lincoln did not turn to "kicking separatist butt." "With malice toward none, with charity for all," he re-cemented the American map and preserved the nation's social fiber.

From the first gushings of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster, we have seen our president continuing to celebrate the presidential perks, gushing himself over the musical talents of Paul McCartney and the basketball talents of the Duke championship team. Yet it took President Obama twelve days to travel to Louisiana to view the hemorrhaging oil along the gulf coast. While blaming the Bush administration for a drilling project that his own Interior Department had approved, Mr. Obama still did not directly engage the chief executive officer of BP through the first six weeks of the crisis. When his Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, fired Elizabeth Birnbaum from her position as head of the federal Minerals Management Service (MMS), the president accidentally revealed his obliviousness while at a press conference. The Obama-Salazar administration had appointed Birnbaum to her critical post in July 2009 because the president was determined to reconstitute America's energy program, replacing seasoned experts on oil-and-gas exploration with climate-change advocates focused on expanding renewable energy. As reported by the New York Times:

Before she took the job at [MMS], Ms. Birnbaum [...] had virtually no experience with the oil and gas industry, but that was seen as a plus, according to a top Interior Department official. She worked at the Interior Department in the last year two years of the Clinton administration on natural resource issues, leaving as an associate solicitor in 2001 to become a top lawyer and advocate for American Rivers, a conservation organization. Ms. Birnbaum had never supervised more than a few dozen people, and the problems at the agency were daunting.

The challenge now is for the president to draw upon a career of seasoned executive experience in acting to solve this calamity. Unfortunately, we have come to learn that he lacks such experience. Even now, this administration, surrounded by "Green Energy" experts, finds itself turning to James Cameron, who wrote, co-produced, and co-edited Titanic, for insights and answers.

As crude oil surges up from the Gulf, while crude language emerges from the President of the United States, Americans continue to learn about the Unknown Gentleman from Illinois whom we elected as chief executive to lead the free world through a toughening war in Afghanistan, a troubled military conflict in Iraq, a looming catastrophe in the Middle East as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad draws ever closer to acquiring nuclear weaponry, a double-digit-trillion-dollar deficit that is growing beyond sustainability, national unemployment stuck for months near ten percent, Europe in economic chaos -- and crises like Deepwater Horizon. Until the November 2010 elections arrive, we must hope that this man finds "Solvers" who can see crisis-resolution models beyond "kicking butt" aboard the Titanic while an iceberg looms within eyesight.

Dov Fischer is a legal affairs consultant and adjunct professor of the law of civil procedure and advanced torts. He is the author of General Sharon's War Against Time Magazine and blogs at