If you watched Bill Maher the other night, the same episode in which he let impersonator Reggie Brown finish delivering his coup de grace to the GOP, you will have heard a discussion about President Obama and his leadership and governing abilities. Or rather, his lack of said abilities.
Bill Maher wants to know why Obama won’t be more liberal. “It would be kind of a tragedy,” he said, “if we got to the end of four years of Democratic rule without having tried any Democratic policies.” The complaint voiced was that Obama is not leading, he is not a leader. Why doesn’t Obama lead? This is, ironically enough, a thing progressives and conservatives agree on: that Obama is not a leader.
Of course, to conservatives Obama is worse than liberal – he is so far past liberal that he is a socialist or even a communist, the most “polarizing president” in our nation’s history. In April 2009, Michael Gerson wrote in an op-ed published in the Washington Post,
According to the Pew Research Center, the gap between Republican and Democratic approval ratings for Bush a few months into his first term was about 51 percentage points. For Obama, this partisan gap stands at 61 points. Obama has been a unifier, of sorts. He has united Democrats and united Republicans — against each other.
Because of course it’s Obama’s fault that he is president at the height of the Republican version of the Vulcan pon farr. Is it our president’s fault the Republicans went collectively insane when he was elected? Apparently so. Gerson blames Obama, not the Republicans. Maybe Gerson missed all those calls for ideological purity coming from the Republican ranks, the cries of “no compromise!” the demands that Obama do what the Republicans wanted him to do. Of course, if you look at the record, you’ll find that Obama did compromise – far too often according to his progressive critics. Maher, for example, accuses him of “sucking up to the people he should be fighting.”
Isn’t that what compromise is? Maybe Obama stands apart because he’s the only one trying to actually do it?
Of course, Obama happens to be president but he is not the cause of polarization. The polarization is due in large part to the extreme positions adopted by the Republican Party. The election of President Obama, a centrist president – a black man – seems to have sent Republicans over the edge due to irreconcilable differences between belief and reality. And why not? God promised them a sitcom couple and they got a sensible black man? Who wouldn’t go insane?
Unable to take it out on God, they have completely shoved his promise under the carpet and taken it out on Obama. Seriously, It is only someone who has stepped off the edge of America’s traditional political landscape who can find Obama to be polarizing. In truth, he could not be less polarizing. The extremes were already polarized. Obama just stepped into the middle and in the process, clearly defined just how polarized the landscape has become.
Some progressives, of course, have stepped off the other end of the political landscape and act like Obama is a closet conservative. They ask, “where is the change?” Maher said he voted for Obama because he wanted change. Others, like New York Times columnist David Carr, a panelist on the same episode, voted for him because he was the most moderate candidate. And that’s what they got – a moderate. A centrist. Obama inhabits that space that Capitol Hill politics revolved around since World War Two – the handshake across the aisle.
In a fit of wonder, Carr pronounced, “It turns out he’s a politician!”
And it’s a good thing. The government needed a politicians, given the alternative was that sitcom couple, the dysfunctional theocratic/senile brain trust offered by John McCain and Sarah Palin, a man who had forgotten what he was doing and a woman who never knew. After eight years of a witless cowboy’s bewildered looks and God-mandated rule, we needed Obama.
The thing is, it takes two to make politics work. Politics without compromise is a dictatorship. The Republicans liked that idea when George W. Bush was president. But now there is a Democrat in the White House, and a black one at that. So the Bush era game plan that the president should never compromise suddenly isn’t popular. Instead, even when he shows willingness to compromise, they accuse Obama of not compromising. Imagine how much less would have been accomplished in the previous two years if Obama had been as progressive as the far left wanted him to be.
The Republicans wouldn’t act like adults. They still won’t. So Obama did – and is.
Because what the Republicans really meant, of course, was that Obama refused to do exactly what they demanded he do. Obama, it turns out, realized he won the election. The Republicans, facing that crisis of cognitive dissonance, have still not managed to figure out how exactly to function. Enter the radically divisive Tea Party into the vacuum.
One response to situations for which you have no valid argument has always the ad hominem attack – going after not the message but the messenger. Republicans have proven they like this approach. In what is a rather mild rebuke for him, Gingrich leads the charge on the right, claiming that “Barack Obama leads with his foot” – he’s a “fumbler.” This, from the guy who changes his mind every five minutes. Gingrich is looking only moderately less senile than John McCain and nearly as clueless as Sarah Palin.
Ex-UN ambassador John Bolton agrees with Gingrich, claiming that Obama is not qualified to lead the country. And this, from a guy who seemed perfectly comfortable serving the witless wonder, George W. Bush. Because staring like a deer into headlights when your country is attacked is true leadership, right John?
There is plenty of evidence that Republicans are misreading the political situation as we move toward 2012. According to CBS News, “Gingrich and Barbour insisted that most Americans agree with their conservative values. Gingrich said the 2012 election would provide a chance to end the ‘domination of the left and move this country back to the center-right.'” They must have missed the backlash after the 2010 elections.
A 2009 ABC/Washington Post poll had already revealed that only 20 percent of respondents identified themselves as Republican. The figure hadn’t been that low since 1983. If the so-called pro-life movement is gaining ground in America, more Americans are saying they are in favor of marriage equality in contradiction of a major lynchpin of the GOP/Tea Party social agenda. Even the military is showing signs of conservative fatigue according to a Military Times survey taken earlier this year:
An exclusive survey of some 1,800 active-duty troops shows the percentage of self-identified Republicans has decreased by one-third since 2004, from 60 percent to 41 percent, while the percentage of self-identified independents has nearly doubled to 32 percent during the same period.
Mitt Romney, 2012 presidential hopeful, unhelpfully opines that Obama is a “European” leader. An anti-colonialist Kenyan would have to be, wouldn’t they? The Republican critics of Obama can’t make up their mind how to attack him. After all, he supposed to hate the British, isn’t he, on behalf of his father. And isn’t Great Britain part of the EU? Guess he’s not much of a European leader either.
Despite GOP.com’s blanket assertion that “Obama fails to lead”, it doesn’t sound as if the Republicans have succeeded in identifying Obama as the Other, let alone disproving his leadership abilities. And Obama is, after all, the leader who proved his leadership by finally catching and killing Osama bin Laden. Republican leadership had already proven it lacked the intestinal fortitude and political will to achieve this objective, something Americans are unlikely to forget.
On the left, we find Al Gore asserting that Obama has failed to lead on climate change. Gore wrote in a Rolling Stone article:
“President Obama has thus far failed to use the bully pulpit to make the case for bold action on climate change. After successfully passing his green stimulus package, he did nothing to defend it when Congress decimated its funding.”
This is the least of the attacks made on Obama’s leadership abilities on the far left, who claim they were betrayed when Obama failed to deliver on his promises for change after his 2008 election. For example, LAProgressive accuses Obama of attacking his political base. At the same time, AmericanConservativeDaily accuses Obama’s “progressive regime” of attacking local radio. There are progressives and conservatives alike who hate “Obamacare” (Maher calls it “pro-business”) – for progressives it doesn’t go far enough; for conservatives, it’s socialism.
In fact, Obama has delivered on quite a few promises. According to the Obameter maintained by PolitiFact.com, which tracks 508 Obama promises:
- Promise Kept 137
- Compromise 40
- Stalled 69
- In the Works 218
By my count, that 26% of his promises kept, 8% compromised, 8% broken, 13% stalled, and 42% in the works. In other words, a hefty chunk of those promises might still be kept. And by far he’s kept more promises than he has either broken or compromised.
We can argue all day about which promises are more important but ultimately such claims will remain subjective. Everyone has different agendas and rates problems differently.
The center is not a comfortable place to be in an age of polarization. And it would be thought that these attacks from both “left” and “right” would highlight Obama’s centrist position. And seen as a centrist, he most certainly has led – navigating with great skill (though not without a few mishaps) the treacherous waters between the polarities. It would appear rather than being an abject failure that our own version of a back-country lawyer shows promise.
At least one a author agrees. Writing for Forbes.com, Norm Smallwood, co-author of The Leadership Code, argued in 2009 that “One approach to assessing leaders is to think of what they do in two parts, their attributes and the results they get.” Using this approach, he and his fellow authors “find that he’s got all the right tools.” He writes that,
President Obama has every one of the Leadership Code attributes to do his job in a superior manner. But can he also deliver results? That remains to be seen.
Two years into a four-year term is too early to judge a presidency. As my ancestors used to say of judging a thing before it’s over,
At eve praise the day,
a woman when burned, 
a wife when wedded,
a weapon when tried,
ice when over it,
ale when ’tis drunk
Until then, I am going to differ with Bill Maher, who like Obama is not always right (progressives, please pardon the pun). I am willing to give Obama a tentative “B”, denying him an “A” primarily on account of his continued support for the Faith Based Initiative and extension of the Patriot Act. Others will criticize or praise him for other reasons.
 A woman burned, by the way, means on her funeral pyre. In other words, don’t weigh the worth of a person until they’re dead. Who, for example, would have thought Jimmy Carter would do all he has done since his disastrous presidency? Might George W. Bush yet surprise us?