I see that CNN’s David Gergen writes today in “Mr. President, take command” that he is unhappy with the efforts of BP and the government, and wants to have President Obama take command of the efforts to stop the oil flowing into the gulf. But Gergen pines for something that President Obama is incapable of doing: taking charge.
While Obama is described by some as an effective organizer, lecturer, teacher, and politician, he was never credibly described, in my opinion, as an effective leader. He is not, and never has been, a chief executive. The closest thing to a CEO that Obama has ever been was “running” his own Presidential campaign. It’s a bit of a paradox to say that his best qualification for being elected to run the Federal government was the fact that he was campaigning for the job. His is a resume long on schooling, and short on appropriate experience.
Like many liberals, Obama can summon all the proper emotion, on cue if necessary. He is “angry and frustrated”, and sees the failure to plug the well “as enraging as it is heartbreaking”. All a wonderful range of likely very sincere emotions. But what is it that is really missing? Action. The President, for all his rhetorical flourishes that try to cement his emotions with those of the people, consistently falls short in one area: action.
The problem is that Obama has no idea how to go about doing what needs to be done. This is why, when he faced off with Republicans after his inauguration, he responded to their suggestions with “I won”. Yes, you did, but now you must lead! He farmed out the responsibility for his stimulus and healthcare ideas to the Democrat congress, not because he wanted to remain above the fray, but because he had no idea how to lead on these issues. Obama castigates BP for its malfeasance, and lambasts federal regulators as if they were some indifferent third party. Look, if Bush owns 9/11 only nine months after his inauguration, why would you believe that someone else is responsible for the federal bureaucracy 16 months after you take the helm? A real leader understands that those they work with will make mistakes. The leader must work to keep those mistakes few in number, minimal in scope, and continue to inspire and motivate after such mistakes inevitably occur, while teaching and disciplining where necessary to reduce the chance for those mistakes to occur again.
And really, the country does not expect Obama to dive down and seal the well himself. We do not expect the President to invent a new technology on-the-spot that will close off the flow of oil, or corral the square miles of oil slicks, and make them disappear. But we do expect the President to gather the best and brightest minds available, see what solutions are out there, and get to implementing them. It’s not enough to say that you’re in charge, and the buck stops here. The federal government has untold assets to focus on the problem; bring them to bear where it will help. If we can’t stop the oil flow until August, then forthrightly say that’s the most likely course of action, and that there ought to be several things that can be done to mitigate the mess while we wait. A true leader is not content to be stymied by the current course of events. He seeks the way around obstacles in his path, and determines how his actions can be brought to influence events, not the other way around.
Like many, I expected Obama to fail, even wished for it. But I didn’t expect a failure this spectacular. There’s a lesson in this: Be careful what you wish for.