Leader, not conciliator

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, December 15, 2010


The low approval rating President Obama has had during his second year in office has to do more with his leadership style than with the successes and setbacks of his administration or the economic conditions. In trying to be the conciliator in chief, Obama has failed to show the kind of decisive leadership that Americans expect from their presidents.


Obama won in November of 2008 in the midst of the worst economic crisis in the United States in several decades and was inaugurated as the first African American President. In the primaries, he defeated Hillary Clinton and other democrats because he had a more conciliatory message. In the general election, he won because of people’s dissatisfaction with the Bush administration and because of the economic crisis. During his first few months in office, the contrast between his inspirational life and the much criticized leadership style of his predecessor allowed him to enjoy strong approval ratings. His honeymoon with the American electorate was sweet and reasonably long.


When his honeymoon ended, Obama has seen his approval slip systematically. The downward curve has not been steep, but so far it has been irreversible. According to Gallup polls, his approval fell below 60% in June of 2009 and has not recovered since. Since June of 2010, it has consistently been below 50%. In its most recent tracking poll on December 10, Gallup put Obama’s approval at 45% and his disapproval at 49%.


Precisely because his approval has slipped slowly but surely, it would be point to a specific event or decision as the cause. The high unemployment rate has certainly contributed. The negative effect of unemployment on presidential approval is well documented for previous presidents in the United States and elsewhere.  Yet, Obama’s struggle in approval has more to do with his leadership style than with the economy or the decisions he has made as President.


Since he entered national politics, Obama has cast himself as a conciliator. His life experience—being biracial and growing up in Indonesia, Hawaii and the Midwest—taught him to value other people’s views. In Dreams of My Father, the best seller he wrote before he decided to run, Obama stressed his belief in deliberating to reach consensus or at least incorporate views held by the minority. As President, Obama has sought to transform the oval office into a safe haven from polarized and partisan politics.


During his first two years, Obama had as his right hand man a Democratic Party operative that was all about partisanship. His Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was as much about muscling and pushing an idea through Congress as Obama was truly committed to building consensus with the opposition.  Though occasionally the vision of the President and that of his Chief of Staff were at odds, the strategies of the two men were also complementary in daily politics. However, Emanuel is now gone and Obama’s new Chief of Staff Pete Rouse does not have the stature,  political clout or skills to serve as the counterbalance to the conciliatory style favored by the President.


In a country founded upon the principle of checks and balances, Americans want their President role to have decisive leadership. Presidents must call to action. From FDR’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” to JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” Americans are accustomed to see their presidents lead.  Even President Bush, whose decisiveness made him rush into a costly war in Iraq, American presidents have long understood that public opinion wants them to make decisions, to execute. The oval office is the place where decisions are made and military action is ordered. A president perceived as being too conciliatory will inevitably be cast as a weak and indecisive leader.


As a candidate, Obama promised he would with Republicans across the aisle. Voters welcomed that willingness to go beyond partisan bickering. Yet, when voting, citizens are not sufficiently reflexive as to what they want. They often have contradictory goals and would like governments to implement mutually exclusive policies. Almost universally, voters want lower taxes and higher spending. They don’t want the state to mess with their wallets, but expect public services such as education, health, infrastructure, security and defense to be efficient and well funded. When faced with leadership styles, voters want presidents who will avoid partisanship but who also will make tough decisions and hold to their guns in keeping the promises they made as candidates.


As the first African American President, Obama broke new ground. As President, however, he should aspire to recast the role of the executive. Americans want a President who will show decisive leadership rather than a person whose decisions are blurred by hi effort to take into consideration all views on the issue at hand. The ability to make tough decisions in a manner consistent with campaign promises is the path to presidential success and, consequently, to high approval numbers in polls.