The failures of Obama’s leadership

Some of the charges that President Obama is 'mailing in' his second term are silly. But he can give the impression of being disengaged, and he has no one to blame for that but himself.

President Obama walks with senior adviser Valerie Jarrett as he leaves a fundraising event in Los Altos Hills, Calif., on July 23.

With the news filled with headlines of international chaos in Ukraine, Gaza, Iraq, Libya, and Syria – just to name five world hot spots – and domestic politics being riled by everything from immigration and a border crisis to ongoing budget disputes, President Obama is once again coming under criticism for seeming to ignore what’s going on around him. Much of this criticism, to be fair, is partisan in nature and not all that different from what we’ve heard from Republicans for the past five years. At the same time, though, the president is finding himself coming under criticism by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for seemingly standing back and not doing anything to prod Congress into acting on the border crisis beyond giving speeches and polls continue to show that the public has lost confidence in the president’s leadership, something that we have seen for several months now.

Peggy Noonan echoed that theme in a July 4 column at The Wall Street Journal:

Barack Obama doesn’t seem to care about his unpopularity, or the decisions he’s made that have not turned out well. He doesn’t seem concerned. A guess at the reason: He thinks he is right about his essential policies. He is steering the world toward not relying on America. He is steering America toward greater dependence on and allegiance to government. He is creating a more federally controlled, Washington-centric nation that is run and organized by progressives. He thinks he’s done his work, set America on a leftward course, and though his poll numbers are down now, history will look back on him and see him as heroic, realistic, using his phone and pen each day in spite of unprecedented resistance. He is Lincoln, scorned in his time but loved by history.

He thinks he is in line with the arc of history, that America, for all its stops and starts, for all the recent Supreme Court rulings, has embarked in the long term on governmental and cultural progressivism. Thus in time history will have the wisdom to look back and see him for what he really was: the great one who took every sling and arrow, who endured rising unpopularity, the first black president and the only one made to suffer like this.

That’s what he’s doing by running out the clock: He’s waiting for history to get its act together and see his true size.

He’s like someone who’s constantly running the movie “Lincoln” in his head. It made a great impression on him, that movie. He told Time magazine, and Mr. Remnick, how much it struck him. President Lincoln of course had been badly abused in his time. Now his greatness is universally acknowledged. But if Mr. Obama read more of Lincoln, he might notice Lincoln’s modesty, his plain ways, his willingness every day to work and negotiate with all who opposed him, from radical abolitionists who thought him too slow to supporters of a negotiated peace who thought him too martial. Lincoln showed respect for others. Those who loved him and worked for him thought he showed too much. He was witty and comical but not frivolous and never shallow. He didn’t say, “So sue me.” He never gave up trying to reach agreement and resolution.

This weekend at The Telegraph, Matt K. Lewis raises a very similar argument, wondering if perhaps the president hasn’t basically checked out:

Candidates for president who brazenly assume they are the inevitable victor are sometimes accused of “measuring the drapes” for the White House.

Obama, conversely, seems to be prematurely packing his bags in hopes for an early departure.

Just last week, for example, the Los Angeles Times reported that “The First Family is believed to be in escrow on a contemporary home in a gated community where entertainers Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby once maintained estates”.

The fact that the press would find relevance in speculating on Obama’s post-White House residence – and identify California as the kind of scene the future ex-president would want to hang out in when he leaves office – is perhaps telling.

And, indeed, this comes on the heels of multiple reports from outlets such as The New York Times and Politico, detailing how Obama has increasingly been spending his time at trendy restaurants and fancy, late-night dinner parties with celebrities and various intellectuals.

Rubbing elbows with the rich and elite is fine enough. Unfortunately, the work suffers. The degree to which he is now phoning it in – sleepwalking perfunctorily through his second term – is astonishing.

And based on his recent handling of situations much more serious than a possible post-presidential move to sunny California, it seems as if “No Drama Obama” is no longer even worried about keeping up appearances; he doesn’t care enough to fake it.

Consider this: In recent days, a) Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down, apparently by Russian separatists in Ukraine, b) In the Gaza strip, the numbers killed continued to mount as Israelis and Palestinians exchange rocket fire, c) a huge influx of children fleeing Central American poverty and gang warfare swamped America’s southern border, creating a humanitarian crisis. And, oh yeah, d) Christians living in Mosul were given the choice to either convert to Islam or flee the area they have inhabited for nearly two thousand years.

You know what else has happened during this time? a) Obama played many rounds of golf, b) he attended numerous fund-raisers, c) he dined on barbecue in Texas and burgers in Delaware, and d) he almost appeared on the comedian Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night television show in Hollywood.

I say “almost” because the White House finally relented. “We ultimately elected not to have the president do that interview over the course of this trip,” the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, conceded. “And that is at least in part related to the challenges of doing a comedy show in the midst of some of these other more serious matters that the president’s dealing with in the international scene.”

As a general rule, I think that the criticisms that have been leveled against President Obama regarding things like how he spends his leisure time are unfair. As both and I others here at OTB have noted before, the criticisms of things such as how many times the president has golfed over the past five years (see here, here and here for commentary on that topic) or the fact that he has spent summers vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard or the Christmas holiday in Hawaii are silly. First of all, the president is never really “on a break” whether he’s on the golf course at Andrews Air Force Base or vacationing. Everywhere he goes he is, of course, accompanied not only by a phalanx of security, but also but numerous aides, the ability to be contacted by the White House at any given moment, and, of course, the guy with the nuclear football, not to mention a press contingent. Secondly, he idea that he’s actually skipping out on work that he needs to do on any of these occasions is utterly absurd both for these reasons, and because of the simple fact that, as president his job largely involves receiving information and giving instructions to others based on that information. The president doesn’t go out on his own and implement the policy he sets, he doesn’t personally lead the military actions or intelligence operations that he authorizes, and the doesn’t build the roads that the transportation bill he signed funds. When people start complaining about the fact that the president is away from the White House, whether he’s golfing, or on vacation, or fundraising, then, they’re are displaying something of a misunderstanding of what the presidency is all about and what a president does or realistically can do. A president who shuts himself or herself inside the White House every time there is some domestic or international crisis isn’t really going to accomplish much of anything, except perhaps create the perception that a given situation is more serious than it actually is.

All that being said, it does seem quite apparent that President Obama is at least creating the perception that he is disengaged from the problems of the nation and the world, and I’d suggest that this is at least in part related to issues about his leadership abilities that go back to the beginning of his presidency. Perhaps due in no small part to the fact that he came into office with no executive experience and a political résumé that essentially involved being a backbench Democrat in the Illinois Legislature and a senator in Washington. That résumé does not appear to have served him well when it comes to dealing with Congress, even when it was controlled by his own party, or working on the international stage. In the case of these particular crises and the state that the world finds itself in today, Obama seems to be creating the impression that he has disengaged. Even if it isn’t true, and I suspect that it isn’t, this isn’t a smart impression to be leaving either with the general public or the world as a whole. On some level at least, the American people need to believe that the president is on top of what is happening in the world and taking the actions necessary to protect American interests. As the polling indicates, both in general and on specific issues such as the economy and foreign policy, the public has generally lost confidence in the president as a leader, and that’s not good either for the president or the country.

At this point, I’m not certain what I’d suggest the president do to turn this around, assuming that’s even possible. There’s no rational reason for him to stop golfing on the weekends or cancel vacation plans. Perhaps toning down the fundraising would be in order, especially when it becomes so conspicuous that even the press is talking about it, and about the fact that they are consistently barred from reporting on what the president says at these events. Indeed, on some level, the issue here isn’t so much about the president doing something so much as it is about him being a leader, which is as much a matter of appearance as it is one of substance. For the most part the public impressions about the president’s leadership abilities are set in stone thanks to the events of the past five years. Some of the perception that has set in is due, no doubt, to the incessant criticisms from Republicans in Congress, but in the end the president has nobody to blame for the situation he finds himself in but himself.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at

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