I am not an historian. But I know enough about history to realize that there is more to the study of the past than memorizing names, dates, and places. There are gigantic forces that are pushing history forward and are only revealed in hindsight, or when cataclysms blow away the fog and allow a brief glimpse of where we are going. Barack Obama is caught up in these forces — well and truly trapped by them — and appears unable to respond to them, much less identify the fact that he is a prisoner of events, many of which are beyond his control, but others on which he might make an impact if he had the first hint of what it took to be a leader during a crisis.
Social historians like Page Smith believe it is the march of ordinary people that drives history forward. Over time, the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of billions of people work on the decisions of national and international leaders, shaping them in ways that are unfathomable to us in the present but can be seen when history is receding in the rear view mirror.
It’s a seductive argument, but leave me my belief that the “Great Man” theory of history plays a role too. I have learned that the narrative histories I so enjoyed in my youth are perhaps not the best way to look at how history unfolds. Too many events occur virtually simultaneously for narrative history to be much of anything but a good read, because by definition, a narrative artificially provides order to disorder.
The towering personalities of those narratives were largely trapped by forces of history that, try as they might, they couldn’t bend to their will in order to alter destiny. Lincoln put it best when he said, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”
Lincoln could only ride the tsunami, not direct it. The ageless desire for freedom, the growing agitation for equality, the westward expansion of peoples and ideas, the rising shame over the sin of slavery, the greed of industrialists, the incomprehensible hypocrisy of a nation that boasted of its freedoms while keeping millions in chains, the emergence of free labor and a nascent labor movement — this and more was in the wave that Lincoln was trying to ride. He was successful only insofar as he was able to identify those things he could control, and those he could not. It was his particular genius, and you certainly can’t expect every president to be gifted with such insight.
But in Barack Obama’s case, events have gotten far the better of him. And most tellingly, he seems unable to see anything that he can control, settling for blaming his predecessor and promising to do better.
In these times, with the challenges he is facing, that simply isn’t good enough.
Obama is riding the wave without realizing he’s even on the water. And to make matters worse, he apparently can’t swim. The analogy of a “deer in headlights” seems harsh but that is a judgment of some of the Washington press corps.
Yet Obama plods along, raising gobs of cash for his reelection bid — he was scheduled to speak at two DNC fundraisers Monday night — and varying little the words he reads from the teleprompter. He seemed detached even from those words Monday as he pivoted his head from side to side, proclaiming that “our problems is not confidence in our credit” and turning his bipartisan fiscal commission into a “biparticle.”
He reminded all that the situation isn’t his fault (the need for deficit reduction “was true the day I took office”), he blamed the other side (“we knew .?.?. a debate where the threat of default was used as a bargaining chip could do enormous damage to our economy”) and he revisited the same proposals he had previously offered to little effect: extending unemployment benefits and the payroll tax cut, and spending more on infrastructure projects.
This, he said, is “something we can do as soon as Congress gets back,” along with further deficit reduction. “I intend to present my own recommendations over the coming weeks,” he said.
Over the coming weeks? As soon as Congress gets back?
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.