Milbank is complaining about there being no sense of urgency in Obama’s remarks. The world is on the edge of a full-blown panic and the president seems detached, uninvolved, perhaps even unaware of the perception that there is a lack of leadership coming from Washington.
His allies and apologists claim that this demonstrates the president’s “coolness.” Nice try, but that just doesn’t cut it. Coolness is telling your wife when you’re on a stretcher with a bullet an inch from your heart that you hope all the doctors are Republicans. Obama’s “coolness” appears to be an aloofness — perhaps even an arrogance — that manifests itself in the curious way in which he views “leadership.” Giving inspiring speeches is very nice (although it’s been a while since we got one of those), and feeling people’s pain is very politically correct these days.
But political leadership is more than delivering pretty words and demonstrating political empathy. It is projecting the ability — whether it is present or not — to identify a problem and make the rest of us partners in addressing it. Leadership engages those being led, makes them part of the enterprise, inspires confidence that collective action will make a difference. In short, leadership is a two-way street. You can’t lead if no one is willing to follow.
When the president speaks, it is usually to lecture, or to have his rhetoric take flight, mouthing meaningless platitudes that fail to inspire but allowing us to feel good about ourselves. “No matter what some agency may say, we’ve always been and always will be a AAA country,” sniffed the president during his speech Monday. Does that inspire you? It seems despairingly banal to me.
There is much that is beyond the ability of the president to do anything about. The European debt crisis is not his fault, and he can’t get in a time machine and go back to fix George Bush’s mistakes, nor the errors of his predecessors. We are paying for a refusal by every president for the past 30 years to cut spending as much as we are now paying for Obama’s myopia on the subject.
But Bush is no longer the president of the United States. Obama supposedly is. Proclaiming that he is failing to do anything about our fiscal crisis because it’s not his fault is more than just politically passing the buck. It is demonstrating to any and all that the man in charge not only can’t control events, but that he has no desire to do so; that the wave he is riding — a wave built on 50 years of belief both here and in Europe that gargantuan schemes to redistribute wealth can go on indefinitely — will crash against the rocks with the president oblivious to the reasons why.
Does this make Obama stupid?
He makes predictions that prove false. He makes promises he cannot honor. He raises expectations he cannot meet. He reneges on commitments made in private. He surrenders positions staked in public. He is absent from issues in which he has a duty to be involved. He is overbearing when he ought to be absent.
But it takes actual smarts to understand that glibness and self-belief are not sufficient proof of genuine intelligence. Stupid is as stupid does, said the great philosopher Forrest Gump. The presidency of Barack Obama is a case study in stupid does.
Neither does it reveal someone with leadership skills. The nation and the world cry out for an American president who can demonstrate that whatever is placed within his grasp can be addressed if we all face the challenges together.
Instead, Obama is telling us we have to make our way forward all by ourselves while he’s right there — leading from behind.