Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Leadership Gap

Over at the Washington Post, they describe Ruth Marcus as "[a] boots–on–the–ground columnist who reports first and opines later."

Thus, when she writes that "[t]he state of the union is ... leaderless," I feel compelled to listen to what she has to say.

She isn't really saying anything that I haven't been saying for quite awhile, but I find it refreshing when I see things like that written in papers like the Post by people like Marcus because I know their histories.

Marcus, the Post admits, leans to the left, which suggests that she supports many of the things Barack Obama does. That doesn't necessarily mean that she supports all of his policies, but she is at least sympathetic to them.

She is clearly not a Tea Partier.

"I'm becoming increasingly worried," Marcus writes, and she isn't alone. A lot of us feel that way. Some of us have felt that way for a long time.

Some of us have been fretting about this absence of leadership for quite awhile. I suppose it is encouraging, though, that some of those who have been Obama's most ardent defenders for the last couple of years are finally beginning to speak of it.

They, of course, would never be accused of racism for noting a flaw in the emperor's clothes, would they?

Then again, Marcus, as the Post says, has a history of using facts to make her points — and that kind of thing has tended to be somewhat annoying for elected officials, many of whom would prefer that their activities in office were not subjected to that kind of scrutiny.

Marcus insists on recalling that, just before he took the oath of office more than two years ago, Obama told the Post, "We have to signal seriousness in this by making sure that some of the hard decisions are made under my watch and not under somebody else's."

As she has sought to hold him to his own standard, she wonders, "[W]hat hard decisions has the president made?"

She worries — and justifiably — that the spending freeze he proposed in his State of the Union address amounts to "nibbling around the edges" and doesn't really address the problem.

"Examine the president's words, and you see nothing new or specific," Marcus writes. "It hardly constitutes bravery to call for a bipartisan Social Security fix that doesn't slash benefits. At that level of generality, who would disagree?"

Obama knew when he came into office that there were difficult choices to be made.

But — in case you didn't already know this — an article in Marcus' Post by writer Peter Wallsten suggests that quite a few difficult choices have not been made.

Wallsten observes that Obama has overseen a "makeover" of his White House staff that is "designed to help him keep a sharp focus on economic issues heading into his 2012 reelection campaign."

It ought to bother Americans to know that others have to keep their president focused on what just about everyone has known all along was the most pressing issue. For that matter, it ought to bother Americans to know that their president has to be managed or handled in any way.

Wallsten calls it "Obama 2.0" — that's a joke, I say a joke, son, but, like any good joke, it has a lot of truth (a lot of unpleasant truth) behind it that Obama cannot afford to ignore.

Obama, with his golden tongue, may be able to persuade voters next year to let him stay in the White House for another four years, even if those voters do think that the country is going in the wrong direction, because they like him, they really like him.

But that is only part of his electoral challenge in 2012 — and how successful he will be will depend to a large extent on what he accomplishes this year.

Things won't be easy for Obama this year or next. His party lost the House in last year's midterms. It is highly unlikely that Republicans will lose enough seats next year to flip control of the chamber again.

But things are going to be a lot tougher for him in the first half of his second term if his party loses the Senate next year.

More than two–thirds of the Senate seats that will be on the ballot in 2012 are currently held by Democrats. Because of the gains made by Republicans in November, they will only need to win about four of those seats to seize control of that chamber as well.

And then Obama will have to hope that his party can regain one or both of those chambers in the midterm of his second term, which has not been very favorable terrain for previous presidents.

In the meantime, he will have to lead an America in which the legislative branch is controlled by a hostile majority.

There is a strange dichotomy that settles in rather quickly when a president has been re–elected, regardless of whether his party is in the majority or the minority in Congress. At the same time that he is enjoying the pinnacle of his political power, he is well on his way to becoming a lame duck.

As each day passes, his authority will diminish even more as lawmakers realize there is progressively less of a penalty to be paid for standing up to the administration — the president is rendered almost irrelevant by the time he takes the oath of office for a second time.

If Obama is re–elected but, at the same time, the opposition seizes full control of Congress, it is hard to see how Obama will achieve anything in at least the first half of his term. Does America have that much time to squander? Can this country wait until at least 2015 for the economy to get back on track and for Americans to be put back to work?

Last November, I remember my father complaining bitterly about the Republican capture of the House. What, he asked me, did people think they were doing, putting Republicans in charge of the House again?

I felt compelled to remind him that it was not a collective decision. Americans voted only in their own districts, and many Republican gains came in districts that have traditions of voting for Republicans but voted for Democrats in either 2006 or 2008. Many of those districts were merely returning to their roots.

And some were legitimate swing districts. If you look at the histories of their representation, you can get a pretty good idea from which direction the wind was blowing.

I also felt compelled to remind him that midterm elections have always been rough for incumbent presidents. Even those rare midterms in which presidents didn't lose any ground on Capitol Hill.

Conventional wisdom holds that, once a president has been through a midterm election, he has learned the ropes and won't be likely to make the kinds of mistakes that new presidents tend to make — and will be more efficient, more effective in the next two years.

Well, that's the thinking. Is that the way it will work out this time?

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