The late, great Robert Bartley once said about Jimmy Carter that he knew his administration was doomed to fail when he was alerted to an anecdote about his leadership style. So hands-on was our 39th president that he actually oversaw usage of the tennis courts at the White House. To Bartley this signaled improper, ineffective focus.
Fast forward to our 44th president in Barack Obama, and while we know about the tough childhood he had thanks to absent parents, know his career arc, and have an understanding of his economic views, we don’t know his leadership style. Thankfully New York Times bestselling author Richard Miniter, a good friend of mine and a former writer for the Bartley’s Wall Street Journal editorial page, has written a very interesting book meant to help readers develop an understanding of how Obama leads. It’s not a positive portrait, but before Obama supporters dismiss Miniter’s analysis out of hand, it’s notable that the author made a point of mostly reaching out to Obama allies in his effort to analyze the man’s leadership qualities.
In Leading From Behind: The Reluctant President and The Advisors Who Decide For Him, Miniter explains Obama’s lacking leadership skills through the prism of six important occurrences in his first term as president. Leading From Behind offers great insights into the president, and then as Miniter is a top notch reporter, readers will quite simply learn a lot that they didn’t know before.
But before that, here’s what we think we know. As Miniter writes, “On the Right, Obama is seen as an evil genius with a dark, complex plan to ruin America.” Conversely, “On the establishment left, he is portrayed as a man dealing with immense problems inherited from his unpopular predecessor, who, through it all, somehow has racked up historic achievements.”
My own view is that like any successful politician, Obama truly thinks his ideas are what’s best for the U.S. In short, he’s yet another talented, but terribly misguided member of the political class.
Indeed, had he simply done nothing, and nothing includes not allowing the Federal Reserve to do anything, Obama would be sitting on a booming economy today; the Bush authored recession having cleansed the myriad errors made during the 43rd president’s failed presidency. Instead, Obama chose to act as politicians are wont to do, his interventions poured cold water on the economic recovery for blunting the curative that was the Bush recession, and the result was a competitive campaign for re-election when he should have won by a landslide.
The above is a largely libertarian view rooted in the belief that “recessions” are a sign of an economy fixing itself. What might surprise Washington-loathing libertarians who read Leading From Behind is what Miniter writes about Obama the person. Not only is he maybe “the most solitary man to hold the office of president”, but “His disdain for official Washington was not a campaign pose, but a genuine feeling, welling from a deep inner spring.”
If so, what a shame our side didn’t find Obama before the Democrats did? The logical response from the true Obama skeptics is that his political beliefs were formed long ago, but one has to wonder. Too often those who lean Republican, or conservative, or libertarian “grow in Washington” (think John Roberts), so imagine getting one of our own into the White House who actually dislikes the Washington crowd.
Instead Obama is a Democrat, and Miniter would argue one easily led around by the political animals that populate the political party he allegedly leads. This loomed large in light of what’s now known as “ObamaCare.”
Miniter writes that “in the earliest days of the Obama administration, his chief of staff and his senior officials did everything they could to stop it, shift it, or sideline it.” As for Obama, it may surprise readers to learn that he “looked on efforts to revolutionize health care in America with a kind of detachment.” The problem was that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was in no way detached about making liberal left history.
Miniter points out that to pass ObamaCare, “Pelosi had to overcome his [Obama’s] constant interference, which repeatedly brought health care reform to the brink of destruction.” When Obama would occasionally grow nervous and ask Pelosi “Can you actually pass it?” given his desire to “bet on a sure thing”, the ever cool Pelosi would remind him that “We’re in the majority” and “We can make this work.”
The legislation that at least to the public bears President Obama’s name is very much the work of a former Speaker of the House who lost her senior role to get it passed. In Miniter’s eyes, “health care reform is the study of a man ducking hard decisions and then taking credit for others’ work, principally Pelosi’s.”
Disagreements with Miniter’s analysis center on a view that I doubt he takes very seriously. Specifically, Miniter asks why in light of high unemployment and general economic despair “were the White House and the Congress fighting about revolutionizing health care at all?” That was the conventional wisdom at the time on the Right, particularly about Obama, and it was brought up every time Obama did something (think his attempt to bring the 2016 Olympics to Chicago) unrelated to the U.S. economy.
In truth, every day a president irrespective of party is on the golf course, on vacation, or distracted by problematic legislation is a good day for liberty and economic growth. Not excusing ObamaCare for even a second, but health care was already heavily regulated as is, and if it distracted Obama, even better. Furthermore, dislike of Obama’s signature legislation led to major losses for the Democrats in 2010 that made more likely the continuation of the Bush 2003 tax cuts (43’s one good piece of economic legislation) the extension of which Obama signed, plus it gave us a form of gridlock. There are positive tradeoffs to every negative.
So while Obama revealed detached, following qualities around fellow Democrats with the passage of ObamaCare, what about budget negotiations that had a more bipartisan feel to them? Once again his leadership left quite a lot to be desired.
What’s unknown when it comes to government spending that originates in the House is how much the president matters as is. Ronald Reagan was said to be a small government type, non-defense discretionary spending somewhat reflected his desires over two terms, but the Democratic-led House voted for deficit spending on an annual basis. Conversely, Bill Clinton at least audibly supported bigger government, but with a Republican House spending by no means cratered, but it was certainly less robust.
In trying to set the tone for the budget discussions, Miniter points out that “Obama’s advisors tried to minimize U.S. national debt levels by comparing them to those of European nations. France’s national debt was some 80 percent of its gross domestic product while Germany’s national debt neared 87 percent.” Seemingly a good strategy, but for one problem; one that backfired on the president.
As Miniter further explained, “European Union member states calculate their national debt by combining all levels of government debt – municipal, state, and federal debt. And those nations count future pension obligations to public-sector workers.” The latter is important because “If you calculated America’s national debt that way, it would balloon to 170 percent of gross domestic product.”
Arguably the above reality weakened Obama’s generalized budget stance, but then all countries are not created equal. Deficits are just another way of financing government, so whether it’s direct spending of dollars or borrowing of same, we’re most often worse off in terms of both liberty and economics when Washington spends. Beyond that, Greece being heavily in debt is nothing like the productive U.S., and evidence supporting this is the premiums investors put on U.S. debt versus that of Greece. Not defending big government for even a second, but at least for now U.S. indebtedness doesn’t seem to scare the markets.
Where Obama’s leadership on the budget really disappointed had to do with how little he seemed to care. Miniter argues that “Obama had a rare opportunity for an historic reform of entitlements”, but as many readers surely remember, his budget called for $46 trillion in spending over ten years. Miniter found that even the reliably liberal New York Times commented that “What Mr. Obama’s budget is most definitely not is a blueprint for dealing with the real long-term problems that feed the budget deficit.”