New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) delivered a widely noticed speech in September 2011, condemning President Obama, not just on policy grounds, but specifically on the issue of leadership. “We continue to wait and hope that our president will finally stop being a bystander in the Oval Office,” the governor said. “We hope that he will shake off the paralysis that has made it impossible for him to take on the really big things.”
Much of the political media agreed and echoed the assessment. Pundits crying, “Why won’t Obama lead?” became so common, a tired cliche was born. The president may have run as a young, ambitious leader, eager to change the world, but the Beltway was increasingly convinced: Obama is an overly cautious, overly cerebral president who would rather talk than act.
Two weeks ago, Dana Milbank went so far as to endorse Charles Krauthammer’s thesis of Obama as a “passive bystander.”
The real problem with Obama is not overreach but his tendency to be hands-off.Since the second year of Obama’s presidency, I have been lamenting the lack of strong leadership coming from the White House, describing Obama in June, 2010, as a “hapless bystander … as the crises cancel his agenda and weaken his presidency.” I’ve since described him over the years as “oddly like a spectator” and as “President Passerby.”
Let’s put aside, for now, the fact that the bystander thesis completely contradicts the other common anti-Obama condemnation: he’s a tyrannical dictator whose radical agenda is destroying the very fabric of America.
Instead, let’s focus on why the bystander thesis appears to be outrageously wrong – especially today.
Faced with an intensifying climate crisis, a hapless bystander, content to watch challenges pass him by, might have decided to do nothing. Maybe he’d call for action in a State of the Union address or issue a white paper, but President Spectator would struggle to shake off the paralysis that makes it impossible to take on the really big things.
Except Obama’s done the opposite, unveiling an ambitious domestic agenda, striking a deal with China that few thought possible, and challenging the rest of the world to follow his lead. It’s an effort wrought with political and policy pitfalls, but Obama’s doing it anyway because he sees this as an effort worth making.
As we discussed back in February, there’s a group of pundits who’ve invested almost comical amounts of time urging Obama to “lead more.” It’s never been entirely clear what, specifically, these pundits expect the president to do, especially in the face of unyielding and reflexive opposition from Congress, but the complaints have been constant for years.
As the argument goes, if only the president were willing to lead – louder, harder, and bigger – he could somehow advance his agenda through sheer force of will, institutional constraints be damned. And if Congress resists, it’s necessarily evidence that Obama is leading poorly – after all, if only he were a more leading leader, Congress would … follow his lead. The line of criticism became so tiresome and so common that Greg Sargent began mocking it with a convenient label: the Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power.
What seems obvious now, however, is the need for these pundits to reconsider the thesis.
Obama saw a worsening climate crisis, so he decided to take the lead. Obama is tired of waiting for a hapless Congress to act on immigration, so he’s leading here, too. Obama saw an Ebola threat, and he’s leading a global effort to save lives. Obama sees an ISIS threat, so he’s leading an international campaign to confront the militants.
The president showed leadership when disarming Syria of its chemical weapons. He’s showing leadership in trying to strike a nuclear deal with Iran. He showed leadership on the minimum wage, raising it for federal contractors while Congress sat on its hands. He’s showed leadership on health care, rescuing the auto industry, and advancing the cause of civil rights. [Update: several readers reminded me he’s leading on net neutrality, too.]
The policymaking process is filled with choke points, but when the president has his eyes on a priority, he doesn’t just throw up his arms in despair when one door closes; he looks for a new route to his destination.
Now, if Obama’s critics want to question whether he’s leading the country in the right direction, that’s obviously grounds for a spirited debate – each of the president’s decisions can and should be evaluated closely on the merits. “Leadership” is not an a priori good. Obama can take the lead on a given issue, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s right.
But if Obama’s detractors would have Americans believe he’s not leading at all, I haven’t the foggiest idea what they’re talking about.
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President Obama is no 'bystander'