All Things Considered by Peter J. Solomon

  • October 11, 2012

When the presidential campaign started, I told my wife that I wasn’t sure I would vote for President Obama until I was confronted by the reality of a voting machine. I harbored too many doubts about his leadership and Governor Romney is a qualified candidate. In the end, my qualms would be overcome by the fears of Governor Romney’s Court appointees and his stand on social issues. I discounted the importance of the debates but I am now confronted by the queasy predicament of being a swing voter, if not one from a swing state.

President Obama is being panned for a poor performance. I suggest that what we witnessed wasn’t a performance but an insight into the real Barack Obama, shorn of the Rose Garden and a chorus of supporters.

Despite his record of accomplishments, polling shows a sense of disappointment with the President’s leadership. After Obamacare, Dodd Frank, a stimulus package, bin Laden and ending 2 wars, the President’s ratings hover at 50 per cent approval. Why are we disappointed with a man who was elected less than 2 months after Lehman Brothers failed and who has faced partisan battles reminiscent of FDR? Partially, it is a result of “dissing” his own Simpson-Bowles Commission or seeming to defer to House Democratic Leader Pelosi or others. Partially, because even given the tough hand he was dealt, he has not articulated a plan to stimulate jobs nor reduce the deficit. Leadership in economic policy is in the hands of the Federal Reserve and its Chairman.

Leadership is a tough quality to explain. But like other definitions, we know it when we see it. In government and politics, it is the ability to articulate a set of goals and ambitions sufficiently clearly that your constituents will follow you and it is also the ability to fulfill those goals and ambitions - despite partisanship.

For the last 4 years, the President has shown a mystifying inability to articulate what he wants to achieve in simple declarative sentences. Was Obamacare to provide universal coverage and remove preconditions or was it to lower healthcare costs? Did we bail out the banks to assure credit and liquidity (never mentioned) or for some true but vague goal of preventing any more failures? One of the reasons Main Street resents the Wall Street bailout is that the Administration never connected the dots.

I visit presidential libraries when I am in their neighborhoods. Two years ago, I spent a morning at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin. I listened to a recording of LBJ explaining succinctly why it was timely and important that civil rights legislation be passed. The crispness of the argument was compelling and both friend and foe could understand where LBJ was taking us. Several years before that I visited President Reagan’s library. I was struck by the notations in the president's own hand on his prepared speeches where - even when he was in failing health - he had rewritten passages to clarify his intent and simplify the language.

Surely, Governor Romney’s assertiveness did not surprise the President. After all, despite the Governor’s political ambivalence over who he really is, he was born into a religion that proselytizes, trained at the Harvard Business School where students are trained to speak forcefully (even when they are wrong) and prospered at Bain where there is a bottom line. Put in a ring, this guy will punch.

It is President Obama who is the issue. We see it when he hems and frowns. We see it when he fails to engage. And we see it when he asserts meekly at the conclusion of 15 rounds that he will work hard for the middle class and then repeats it – as if to assure himself. We have glimpsed the essence of Barack Obama.

A friend suggested the performance reminded him of a nice family man who psychologically was telling us he would rather spend time with his wife and growing children. All things considered, maybe the President would rather be doing something else.