Barack Obama's leadership poll numbers have been plummeting. Only 52 percent of Americans describe him as a strong leader and the momentum as we head into the heat of the Presidential campaign is heading in the wrong direction . Predictably, his apologists and sycophant spinners have come to his rescue and are trying -- once again -- to sell us an image of him as a leader and as a President that bears little resemblance to reality. Beware their power to swing elections; they have a track record of success at doing so.
Barack Obama has put on quite a show for Americans. He has presided over a weak economy that is fueled by high octane gas courtesy of the Federal Reserve's low interest rates and cheap money policies, and by massive deficit spending ending up on our children's and grandchildren's balance sheets.
Why would Americans consider him a leader?
He outsourced ObamaCare to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. The locus of foreign policy has been moved from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay. He and his team were unable to produce a budget in 2010-when he had a majority in Congress. He ignored budget and deficit issues for much of his Presidency and was so late to the game Paul Ryan and the GOP seized the issue and turned it to its own advantage. The stimulus bill, climate change legislation, and sundry other matters were delegated to Democrats in Congress. He always seems to be "far behind the curve" -- not a place once would expect a leader to be. Even liberal New York Times columnist has lost the love who writes that "the President is Missing." He waffled and dithered on Libya, and then in a spastic response decided -- with no consultation with Congress, but on the advice of the United Nations, Arab League, and the trio of Susan Rice, Hillary Clinton, and Samantha Power -- to let the bombs fly for a little while. As it happened, just long enough for the falter as the mission was handed off to NATO (which he has already alienated, as he has a raft of other allies). To a great extent he has been "voting present" since he has been elected, and his basketball games, golf games, musical soirees in the East Room, deluxe vacations, trips down Broadway, and sundry other diversion from the duties of the office have reinforced the image of a failed leader. His eagerness to shed the mantle of leadership, if not its trappings, has upset a few stalwart and honest liberals, such as the Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, who derided Obama's AWOL habit in "Obama's Where's Waldo Presidency":
For a man who won office talking about change we can believe in, Barack Obama can be a strangely passive president. There are a startling number of occasions in which the president has been missing in action - unwilling, reluctant or late to weigh in on the issue of the moment. He is, too often, more reactive than inspirational, more cautious than forceful....
She noted his "slipperiness on fiscal matters," his inability to translate rhetoric delivered via teleprompter to "more granular levels of specificity."
However, as if regretting her apostasy, she pulled back from the brink of honesty and explained away some of his failure to lead as being "matters of legislative strategy, geopolitical calculation or political prudence."
Marcus has not been alone in providing cover for President Obama. This is an old habit for the media when it comes to Obama. The same type of extreme makeover was at work in 2008 when his lack of experience (Clinton's 3 AM phone call commercial) became an asset, since he would bring "Change" and his opposition to the Iraq War (made in front of a group that strongly opposed the Iraq War) was hailed as a profile in courage and a sign of the good judgment he would bring to the Oval Office.
The media has again started playing the game.
Changing the Definition of Leadership
Most Americans want a leader who has articulated principles that will guide him as he makes policy. Americans want a sense of stability and consistency in a President. What they don't want is an adhocracy, where decisions are seemingly made on the fly -- when they are finally made (such as supporting Libyan rebels and not Syrian reformers; such as siding with the Egyptian people and not the Iranian people) -- and where flip-flops reveal a troubled decision-making process. If any Republican had engaged in the flip-flopping that Barack Obama has consistently engaged in during his Presidency (outlined in this Ronald Kessler column) he would be derided as having an unsteady hand on the tiller. His leadership skills would be considered second-rank.
Yet through the alchemy of biased journalism, Obama's vices are being transformed into virtues.
Instead, his double-standards and inconsistencies are praised as actions that are finely "tailored" to events, and his critics are dismissed with the Emersonian phrase: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds". This derision is from Jonathan Alter, who penned a hagiography of Barack Obama. What is praise for Obama without its complementary trashing of the Great Unwashed who just can't comprehend the sheer wonderfulness of Barack Obama?
Dithering as Deliberation
Barack Obama often suffers paralysis when it comes to making a decision. But such freezing in the face of pressure is not what is being portrayed by Obama's cheering section in the media. Instead, we are fed a different vision that idolizes Barack Obama as a wise leader. David Brooks at the New York Times (who saw the fine crease in candidate Obama's pants leg as a sign that he would be a great President) praises such vacillation as "prudence" (and not, say, procrastination). He is praised as an exceptionally deep and nuanced thinker whose skills are beyond our ken. His policy is subtle and situational, as the Washington Post's Dana Milbank puts it, in contrast to the bright lines of George Bush. His refusal to make decisions regarding foreign policy is not a sign of his freezing when decisions need to be made but is a brilliant strategy of "strategic reticence." His dithering is not failure of leadership but is "reflective dithering" and it is disgraceful that his "least-thoughtful critics attack him for thinking"; this spin from Timothy Egan of the New York Times. Try that one with your boss. President Hamlet rings hollow.
Does the media assume we have no memory?
Obama's ambitious agenda when he assumed office garnered comparisons with FDR and the hyperactive 100 Days that led to FDR's enduring image as a leader. This was symbolized by Time magazine's cover photo of Barack Obama morphing into FDR. How to reconcile that image with the indolence we have seen for years? One way would be to compare him favorably with another President who also loved golf and showed his love many times over. That would be Dwight Eisenhower, of course. Ronald Brownstein in the National Journal linked Obama's presidential modus operandi to that of Ike's. In "Like Ike," Brownstein wrote:
That's not a comment on President Obama's effectiveness or ideology, but rather on his conception of presidential leadership. Whether he is confronting the turmoil reshaping the Middle East or the escalating budget wars in Washington, Obama most often uses a common set of strategies to pursue his goals. Those strategies have less in common with Kennedy's inspirational, public-oriented leadership than with the muted, indirect, and targeted Eisenhower model that political scientist Fred Greenstein memorably described as a "hidden hand" presidency.
Hidden hand, indeed. How about being more honest and calling him the "Invisible Man"?
While Brownstein cites the healthcare bill as proof that validates this putative strategy, he completely ignores that Democratic dominance and bullying and bribery tactics led to its passage, and the failure of President Obama to sell this "reform" to the public. Brownstein praised Obama for stepping back and letting others do the heavy lifting instead of standing up and leading the charge. Obama only comes in at the last minute to seal the deal and seize the credit (New York Times columnist David Brooks, an Obama promoter who also had fine words for Obama's Ike Phase, picks up the thread and writes that Obama is privately crafting his policy toward Libya in a way that escapes public awareness, and has done so masterfully) . America sees a risk-averse lazy delegator, but Brownstein wants to peddle the image that this Ike-like President is worthy of comparison to one that oversaw D-Day, the downfall of Hitler, and the ordeal of the Cold War. Jonah Goldberg does not buy the image of a strong President working his miracles behind the scene; nor should we. (While Brownstein and Brooks see in Obama's absence the wizard behind the curtain pulling strings, others truly see there is no there, there, and see the "Incredible Shrinking President" as virtuous. David Rothkopf of The Hill calls Obama the Master of Ceremonies who works to create coalitions and let's others take the lead. Rothkopf praises this conception of leadership in the foreign policy arena -- less is more -- as adjusting to the realities of a strained budget and higher domestic priorities. Less is more does not sound like the image Americans want in a leader). Actually, if anyone had bothered to look, Barack Obama has a long record of dithering; otherwise known as a poor work ethic.
A Leader Above The Fray
Obama's refusal to engage in battle is not characterized as laziness or cowardliness but is the mark of a dignified statesman who does not want to sully the Office of the President by partisanship and deal-making. Instead, Obama's apologists are trying to portray him as being "above the fray." Fused into this narrative would be the penchant of commentators to characterize Barack Obama as the only adult in the room, dealing with squabbling children --perhaps taking the lead from Barack Obama's own call for his opponents to put away "childish things."
The spinners seem to have forgotten episodes where Obama clearly was not above the fray (the New York City mosque controversy, the Boston police scuffle with Professor Gates, the Wisconsin showdown between Scott Walker and public employee unions, for example). He is only above the fray when he is likely to lose or would have to exert himself and compromise his ideology to make a deal. Do these people really think the image of Barack Obama as an "above the fray" paterfamilias, as the stolid George Washington returned to life, will resonate with clear-eyed Americans?
Perhaps it is just a different form of leadership that is just not yet effective, as Senator Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) speculates.
Ah...yes...it is just a different form of leadership. Obama was all about Change, after all.
He Is Above Partisan Politics
Brownstein touches upon another trope of Obama's apologists: that Obama is above partisan politics, while others that he towers over are small-minded partisans. However, the Wall Street Journal's Potomac Watch column has another, more plausible rationale for his reticence to make big decisions: he wants to keep his approval ratings up . But while the blank slate strategy worked in 2008, it won't work when Americans want a president to man up and project leadership.
Therefore, those looking for a leadership defined by strong statements and positions are using a faulty definition of leadership, according to elite opinion-makers. We need to dispense with the old traits of leadership (perhaps, symbolically, Obama did the same when he sent Winston Churchill's bust back to the Brits) and use a new paradigm.
The problem with this ruse is that Obama does make strong statements, but often has to backtrack when he refuses to back up his words with actions, which is an antitheses of leadership that many Americans see, and many Obama's apologists choose not to see. He avoids personally engaging in combat, but that was, according to Thomas Mann, senior fellow of the Democrat-leaning Brookings Institution, just "getting beyond ideological partisan debates." He is a "centrist" and a "realist" who "adheres, by instinct and experience to the middle ground" This is a lie and those who peddle this fiction have willfully fallen for the "false choice" ruse that has become an Obama trademark. Ruth Marcus sees through the rhetorical trick. Obama will often employ it in various forms, but the crux of the tactic is to present two extreme choices that no one is seriously advocating, while Obama positions himself as the champion of the reasonable and sensible middle ground. This is the type of nuanced decision-making that his apologists all too often consider the true sign of leadership.
President Obama has employed the false-choice device in assessing financial reform, environmental regulation, defense contracting, civil liberties, crime policy, health care, the deployment of troops in Iraq, Native Americans, the space program and, most recently, the situation in Libya.
Even NPR hosted a program where commentators criticized Obama's "false choice" argument as a distortion of reality This distortion of reality is a fiction that Roger Cohen of the New York Times, David Ignatius of the Washington Post (who hailed Obama's Libya policy as a "hybrid strategy, blending realist and humanitarian interventionist themes"), and many other media mavens are happy to peddle to America to burnish Obama's image as a leader. Perhaps, the most unexpected bit of honesty came from Oprah Winfrey of all people, who wants respect for Obama because "everybody has a learning curve," including Barack Obama (Clinton's 3 AM phone call commercial was on target).
He has had two years of on-the-job training and he has yet to show he is a leader, regardless of what his apologists might say or write.
"He plays the media like a fiddle" was the headline of a Politico column. But he really does not need to "play the media" since so many columnists and journalists are primed to use their power to help him get elected. Sometimes the mask of objectivity falls off completely, as when MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski admitted she was just parroting White House talking points, but we can rest assured that the media will once again falsely portray and cover for Barack Obama to help him win a second term.
Will the whitewashing win again next November?
Ed Lasky is news editor of American Thinker.