Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Failure to Lead

"The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned."

14th Amendment, U.S. Constitution
Section 4

Yesterday, I was talking on Facebook with a fellow I have known since we were children in Arkansas. He still lives there. I do not.

I have been in the habit, from time to time, of posting links to politically oriented articles on Facebook. If you've been reading this blog regularly, you probably have a good idea what kind of links I've been posting.

My friend is an Obama defender (a rare breed in Arkansas), and I guess he's been feeling a bit put upon lately. (As you may have noticed, many Obama defenders have been on the defensive. Some feel Obama didn't receive enough credit for the mission that took out bin Laden. Others, no doubt, have felt that the debate over the debt ceiling undermined his authority.) He took exception to my posts.

Anyway, he remarked: "We get it. You don't like Obama."

That isn't really true. I don't have anything against the man personally. In fact, in an odd kind of way, I feel about him in much the same way I did about Ronald Reagan — on a personal, not political, level.

On that personal level, I liked Reagan. I rarely agreed with him on the issues, but I liked him personally. And, on that personal level, I like Barack Obama, too. I agree with his positions on issues more than I did Reagan, but I get frustrated at his insistence on not leading.

And I have been frustrated by Obama's supporters, who have frequently accused me of being a racist when the truth is that I have disagreed with the president — or criticized his failure to lead. I challenge anyone to cite a single example where I have said something that was racist.

A presidency is not, contrary to what Karl Rove once suggested, about with whom you would rather share a beer. (OK, maybe some people treat it that way, but I don't.) When I vote in a presidential election, I am not picking a drinking buddy. I am picking the person I want to lead my country in the next four years.

And even if I don't vote for the candidate who wins (and that has happened much too frequently in my life), I still expect the winner to lead. I may not like the direction, but at least I have a clear idea where we're going.

I prefer that to a rudderless ship of state.

Obama appears to want to run for re–election on his terms. He wants to be the outsider he was in 2008, free to criticize policy. But he isn't an outsider anymore. He is an incumbent and, as such, he is part of the process now.

The policies are his.

With outsiders, voters can only rely upon their gut instincts about whether the candidate would have what it takes to lead a nation of more than 300 million people. It is mostly hypothetical.

With incumbents, voters have had many opportunities to see for themselves. It is not hypothetical.

I suppose that, because of Obama's twin messages of hope and change, a majority of voters in 2008 believed he possessed those leadership qualities, that he had a definite idea where he wanted to take America. I never felt that way. I don't know why. It was my gut reaction.

I didn't vote for Obama in 2008 (actually, I voted for Ralph Nader), but if he showed even the slightest inclination toward leadership, I would consider voting for him in 2012. To date, he has not.

And that was the gist of my response to my friend.

I didn't want to say that I think Obama is a likable guy — because that isn't what the presidency is about to me. Obama's likability is not relevant to whether he can do the job.

I think it is important to like the president, but that is secondary to someone who has the courage to stand for what he believes is best for the nation.

"He isn't leading, Paul," I replied.

Paul's response? "I figure it's pretty difficult to lead a bunch of spoiled petulant whiney–assed teabaggers who operate under a 'Scorched Earth' policy. S&P stated that it appeared that the Bush II tax cuts would not expire, therefore no increased revenue. There's only so much that can be cut from a budget."

I replied that Obama could have invoked the Fourteenth Amendment.

When most people speak of the Fourteenth Amendment, they do so in the context of its provisions for citizenship, due process and equal protection, which are important, to be sure, but the amendment also addresses the subject of public debt. It was a little–known provision of the amendment until recently.

Legal scholars disagree over the powers that the amendment gives to the president. Some have said that it gives the president the authority to raise or ignore the debt ceiling and that, if challenged in court, the ruling likely would be in the president's favor — if the court agreed to hear it at all.

Others have said the amendment does not give such power to the chief executive.

In the legal community, it is seen as an unresolved issue.

Seems to me the debt ceiling debate of 2011 would have been a good time to test it — since it has never been tested before. Both sides mentioned during that debate how many times presidents from both parties had sought to raise the debt ceiling.

I figured this would be a good time to settle it — hopefully, once and for all.

But this was Paul's response: "Congress would promptly draw up impreachment papers."

"On what grounds?" I asked.

"They'd think of something," he replied.

Ah, yes, the infamous "they." Nearly every president in my memory — and/or his defenders/supporters — has fallen back on that one, in one way or another. They are always engaged in some kind of conspiracy against the incumbent.

Richard Nixon probably was the best at that claim. He always believed someone was out to get him — which may or may not have been true. But most of his predecessors have come to believe something similar.

I guess it is a natural progression for a president, often isolated in the White House, from the adulation of the campaign trail to a feeling of persecution once in office.

But a president's supporters are not isolated. They're outside the Beltway where they can see the effects of public policy on their friends, neighbors, co–workers (if they still have their jobs).

My friend's recitation of the company line suggests to me that Obama's failure to lead is beginning to wear on his supporters, and that does not augur well for his re–election campaign, no matter how much money he has raised.

I get the sense that Obama's supporters are becoming demoralized

I had to ask my friend, "Is fear of impeachment a valid excuse for a president not to lead?" He didn't reply.

Is leadership really that important? Well, it's definitely a component of job approval, and that, I believe, is a key figure, one that a president who is seeking a second term ignores at his peril. It addresses the general feeling people have about their president — and, with the exception of the brief bounce he experienced after the killing of bin Laden in early May, Obama's approval rating has languished in the 40s almost nonstop for two years.

At a comparable point in his first term, George W. Bush enjoyed approval ratings in the 50s.

President Clinton's approval ratings, like Obama's, were in the 40s in his third year in office. He went on to win a second term, the only Democrat to do so since FDR, so he is something of a motivational figure for this White House — but there were some important differences.

In 1995, Clinton's approval numbers were slowly beginning to move in an upward trajectory — and he achieved it largely because he demonstrated presidential leadership in the face of a Congress in which both chambers were controlled by the opposition party — which was every bit as committed to removing Clinton from office then as it is to removing Obama today.

Clinton, of course, eventually faced impeachment proceedings — which may be the reason my friend is skittish about impeachment, but he needn't be. Democrats hold the majority in the Senate, which would have to convict for the president to be removed from office. Two–thirds of the Senate would have to vote for conviction, and I don't think that is likely to happen with this Senate and this president.

Maybe my friend is concerned about the prospect of the executive branch of government being preoccupied with impeachment proceedings during an election year, and the Clinton experience is fresh in his mind. I suppose that is a legitimate fear — but there is more for Obama to learn from the Clinton presidency.

Clinton knew the importance of leadership. Maybe it was his extensive experience as a state governor, experience that Obama did not bring with him to the West Wing.

Clinton said he would not have hesitated to invoke the 14th Amendment, and I think its application would have shown, at the very least, that this president is engaged, that he is thinking beyond the next election and is concerned with how he can leave the presidency better than he found it.

And sparing future presidents the ordeal to which the debt ceiling debate — and the subsequent lowering of the national credit rating — subjected the White House and the American people is a good way to do that.

Instead, I have heard more and more people lamenting the absence of leadership in this White House. That affects a president's job approval — which will, in turn, affect his vote totals.

I ask again — "Is fear of impeachment a valid excuse for a president not to lead?"

1 comment:

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