After resigning as secretary of defense in 2013, Leon Panetta delivered one of the most incisive critiques of President Obama’s leadership.
Obama does not suffer from “a failing of ideas or of intellect,” Panetta argued. “He does, however, sometimes lack fire. Too often, in my view, the president relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.”
The lack of passion has manifested itself in a number of ways – an unwillingness to engage in arm twisting on Capitol Hill, an over-reliance on scripted speeches to communicate his message, and a lack of chutzpa in international relations – all of which have frustrated his allies and provided ammunition to his critics. More fundamentally, it has damaged his ability to communicate with the American people, especially as the nation finds itself anxious about the growing instability in the Middle East and the looming shadow it casts on the West.
George E. Condon Jr, writing for National Journal, explains how an otherwise decent year for the president, in which he achieved some of his key priorities and oversaw a gradually improving economy, was undone by his reticence following the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino.
“That is terrorism,” said Schneider, “and he didn’t seem to be strong. That has pushed everything else off the table. Climate change-who cares? Inequality-who cares?
Schneider, who has been a champion for centrists and moderates in the Democratic Party, said Americans yearned for a reaction similar to President George W. Bush’s after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. “What many Americans were waiting for was the president to say a very simple ‘Go get ‘em.’ But he’s not a ‘Go get ‘em’ president. … He doesn’t really come across as tough and strong and determined the way Bush did. That is because of the kind of president he is. He has this style and temperament of a professor. Rational. Calm. And thoughtful.”
The problem was that President Obama was rational to the point of being unable to feel empathy. He was calm to the point he felt no urgency to act. And he was thoughtful to the point that his decisionmaking process was paralyzed. Those aren’t winning traits for a president, who voters expect to be decisive, and to be a leader.
Unfortunately, this administration, either because they’re convinced of their own greatness or simply tin-eared to the concerns of average people, simply doesn’t understand Americans’ anxiety. That became incredibly clear last week, when the White House ran down its accomplishments in its year-end press conference and wondered why their poll numbers hadn’t gone up.
“If I’d have read that list off the top at the beginning of the year. … I don’t think anybody would have thought that was realistic that we were going to get all that done, particularly facing new Republican majorities in the House and Senate.”
But, as Wiliam Galston, who previously served as President Clinton’s chief policy advisor, told National Journal. “Obviously, that is not the way the American people are keeping score right now. And that’s the president’s problem.”
I would argue it goes further than that. The problem isn’t that Obama is keeping score differently, it’s that he doesn’t understand the game. He’s playing a sophisticated game of cricket, Americans are playing good ol’ baseball, and he’s wondering why he keeps walking batters. As Kevin Williamson writes for National Review:
The really maddening thing, though, is that President Obama thinks the reason he isn’t perceived as being especially good at his job is that we yokels aren’t smart enough to understand how spectacularly spectacular he is. Barack Obama is a man almost entirely incapable of self-criticism, and in the NPR interview, he repeated one of his favorite claims: He has had trouble with public opinion because he didn’t explain his awesome ideas well enough. That’s a very politic way of saying: “These rubes don’t get it.”
The thing is, we do get it. It’s the president and his team that simply don’t, and more troublingly, don’t seem to want to.