President Obama Leads Without Taking Charge

After a walloping at the ballot box last November, he set the terms for a lame-duck session and pulled about six rabbits out of a tiny hat. His approval ratings rose: Americans saw a guy who forced Congress to work together to achieve an end.

The idea that he's not leading frustrates the president. He noted, with sarcasm, that he met with Republicans and Democrats in both chambers of Congress on the debt ceiling, the leaders of both parties numerous times, put Vice President Joe Biden in charge of a process that made headway (agreeing to more than $1.3 trillion in cuts over 12 years) and ... it's suddenly up to him to show more leadership? How?

Well, for one thing, he could adopt an uncomfortable posture and act like more of a take-charge president. He could, in other words, become Chris Christie, a man roughly the same age with roughly the same contempt for baby boomers and their interest groups, but a man with a totally different style of governing. The New Jersey governor is not terribly popular in-state for it, but his model of holding constant town halls, of being in the room, and of showing the heads cracking has a certain street appeal at a time when hopelessness is the prevailing emotion.

Obama's constant refrain -- it's time for others to get serious -- sounds like an acknowledgement that he isn't in control. It sounds like he is wishing for a solution, rather than creating one. Obama actually tried this Chris Christie bit as Republicans threatened to shut down the government. Toward the end of the process, he summoned congressional leaders to the White House until they came to an agreement on a 2011 budget that House Republicans could (just barely) accept. But Christie doesn't present himself as an honest broker. He has his bottom lines out there and negotiates up from them. Obama kept the lights on in April, just barely, but he seemed to be part of the process -- intervening (to the eyes of Americans) way too late.

The truth is that the White House was involved in those discussions well before Obama was. But Obama specifically chose not to play the role of a prime minister. He reasons that he governs more effectively when he presides, rather than when he gets his hands dirty. Obama's mien exacerbates the perception that he lets events lead him, rather than the other way around.

People want to have confidence in Obama as president. They don't want to hear him complain about congressional inaction. They know that Congress and Washington are broken. They want the president to figure out a way around the obstacles.

It is indeed adult of the president to remind Americans that there are no silver bullets and that there's not much that can be done in the short term. But it makes things sound more hopeless than they are and makes people less confident in his ability to lead them.

Maybe this is the lot that Obama drew -- the way that his personal orientation matches up with the demands of the time. It has proven fairly effective in some domains of governing, but it has not, to date, helped him much on the economy, and it remains to be seen whether, over the long term, Americans come to accept it.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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