President Obama Leads Without Taking Charge

At a time of uncertainty, do Americans want a more aggressive commander in chief?

Obama at press conference in East Room - AP Photo:Carolyn Kaster - banner.jpg

President Obama is turning out to be a successful war president who can't find his voice on the most pressing issue of his time, which happens to be domestic.

Democrats took a lot of flack for inventing the euphemism "economic security" in the 1990s, partly as a way to describe President Clinton's complicated but generally effective strategy to rebalance risk in the economy. Back then, Americans felt more or less secure about their economic position. But since Obama became president, persistent economic insecurity has defined the political environment.

In a complicated, inter-connected global economy, the president has almost no unilateral authority to fix things. There's no such thing as a presidential jobs agenda -- trade agreements, payroll tax cuts, and regulation reviews are marginal adjustments to the status quo.

In extraordinary times, presidents can sign their names to bills that do extraordinary things, like the $778 billion economic stimulus package that passed during the first month of Obama's presidency. But that measure was negotiated with another branch of government, with whom Obama shares power. That was, for all intents and purposes, his jobs plan: demand-side stimulus of the economy.

The president credibly argues that the intervention helped save the economy, but even the White House understands that the stimulus did nothing to alleviate economic insecurity or pessimism. (This was what health care reform was supposed to accomplish: a down payment to ending insecurity about health expenses. But the messiness of the debate completely squandered any chance of Americans feeling better about their health care system until the reforms actually kick in in force, which isn't until 2014 at the earliest.)

Americans see that Obama controlled Congress for two years and wasn't able to, or didn't choose to, solve the jobs problem. They understand that things would be worse, but they don't understand why things aren't getting better. They hear him promise, as regularly as the seasons turn, that the economy is turning a corner, that businesses are regaining confidence, and that jobs are coming back.

None of this comports with the reality that most Americans see.

And so Americans remain frustrated and Obama's approval rating remains at 48 pecent. The irony is that, so far as international crises go, Obama has been a successful manager. He has been a war president who has prosecuted a campaign against American enemies with precision and subtlety. He has repaired relationships with American allies. A neophyte Democrat, a young guy elected with virtually no foreign policy experience has restored to the Democratic Party a sense that it can act credibly in world affairs and in defense policy. That's an enviable achievement that the president gets no credit for. He did it with humility.

That's the key to his success. He figured out that the last thing the world wanted was another take-charge, head-cracking American president. Instead, he would assume a posture that respected what other countries said they aspired to do -- and then hold them accountable for doing so, using all the means available to him as president: diplomacy, American soft power, intelligence operations, relationships with other countries, and more.

He brings the same rhetorical approach to governing domestically. He doesn't shout or yell or thump his chest. He prefers to "lead from behind," setting out broad expectations and trying to create incentives for other political actors to fulfill them. He prefers long-term, lasting solutions to temporary ones.

He could have signed an executive order ending the ban on gays in the military, but he chose instead to embark on a process that would lead to the irrevocable end of the policy. It hurt him politically, but it means a Republican president won't be able to reverse it.

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.