There is a Difference Between Good Policy and Good Leadership – A Good Executive Needs Both
America feels like a cesspool right now. It’s hard to understand how, as a country, we have gotten to such a point of disdain and distrust of facts, nasty and divisive rhetoric, and party-over-country mentality. I went on a road trip across America with my mom last month as scandal after scandal broke within the Trump administration. We would often spend long hours in the car baffled, yet unsurprised by what was happening. Most of the time, these conversations would turn into heated debates about why the country is so divided and chaotic. My mom would often say something along the lines of, “I blame Obama”.
When my mom would bring up President Obama, I would usually scoff. Our views about Barack Obama’s presidency have historically been one of our biggest sources of disagreement. From my perspective, especially being exposed to the vitriolic campaign against him from the right wing media during his terms, blaming President Obama for where we are now feels like a reductive and insulting misplace of blame for the state of the nation. Part of my revulsion has been due to the fact that I believe that President Obama inherited a mess and made great improvements to the country. When I think of his accomplishments, I recall initiatives such as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, his commitment to protecting the environment and combating climate change, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act, his defense of the LGBTQ community, among many others. In my opinion, the United States is in a much better place than when he first took office. However, in an effort to better understand some of the criticisms people have made of Barack Obama, I decided to interview my parents about why they believed so many people, and especially voters of their generation, had a problem with how he ran the country. After doing so, I investigated some of their claims myself to get a better understanding of how such critiques fit into a broader conversation about his legacy and contributions to the state of the nation today.
After talking to my parents, I noticed something important that I have seen reflected in other people’s critiques of President Obama. Most of the things they listed: his arrogance, elitism, resistance to bipartisan cooperation, naivety, reliance on charisma were all issues with his style, as opposed to his actual policies. And I see this notion of people having a problem with his style or behavior rather than policy itself as critical. It highlights a distinction that is not discussed enough: the difference between good policy and good leadership.
While many people agree with President Obama’s policies, there seems to be immense backlash to some of his attitudes as an executive. While many Obama supporters acknowledge this, I think they often make the mistake of believing that criticism of Obama’s behavior or affect is a fundamental and undeserved dismissal of him on a personal level, and one that would have occurred regardless of how Obama had conducted himself in the past eight years. However, critiques of this kind can also be seen as an opposition to his leadership style. Conduct, style, and interpersonal relations are all immensely important influencers of how one’s presidency will go, and can be categorized as one’s leadership skills. In examining the bitter divide between those who love him and those who hate him, from the lens of those who see him as less than favorably, one can argue that there is a difference between good policy and good leadership. It is apparent, then, that an executive needs both to truly be effective.
“Lack of experience coupled with arrogance…a toxic combination. There was an adoption of this cool, dismissive thing…that also bothered me. And he went a long time without being called on this stuff which is also infuriating”. -Dad
One of the biggest criticisms of Barack Obama is what many, including my parents, perceive to be his arrogance. World leaders, leading journalists, democratic lawmakers and even Obama himself have made this assertion. Whereas President Obama’s attitude may have been perceived as having a certain coolness or confidence for many liberals, a lot of people evidently viewed his disposition negatively.
In his discussion of important foreign policy issues, President Obama would sometimes refuse to take seriously the warnings or perspectives of highly experienced experts, such as American military generals, especially over extremely important foreign policy decisions such as military strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are also multiple examples of comments he has made that are dismissive of important threats facing the world. In 2014, Obama called ISIS a “JV squad”. Instead of taking the threat seriously and listening to those who had a better understanding of the group, Obama treated them as if they were nothing to worry about. The consequences of this attitude are clear today, as the group has wreaked havoc across the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe.
In another instance, Obama insinuated that Iran was a “tiny country” that posed no major threat to the United States. To describe a country of 80 million people with the fourth largest oil reserves in the world as “tiny” is inaccurate and in itself seemingly unjustifiable. Additionally, this comment seems to be dismissive of Iran’s role in arming Shi’a groups and fueling conflicts in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, while simultaneously showing a complete lack of willingness to take the concerns of our allies, most notably Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel, seriously. Comments such as this have had a very damaging impact on Obama’s credibility, and portrayed him as naive.
Another example was Obama’s decision to run for president in 2008 altogether. At the time, he was criticized for having little experience working in national politics. Having spent only three years in the Senate and choosing to compete against Hillary Clinton, a highly experienced career politician, Obama appeared overconfident to many voters. Instead of taking time to build critical relationships in the Senate that would have helped him better understand Congress, he seemed to place little value on his time there. While this may seem like an insignificant point now, Obama’s decision to run so early in his political career was bound to alienate the many voters who place value on experience and commitment to political expertise. When Trump, or even those Republicans with more experience such as Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz ran with little-to-no political experience, I know I certainly saw them as arrogant, over-confident, and perhaps even delusional. It is easy to see Obama’s decision to run so early in his career made many people skeptical of him from the very start. In addition, his decision to run as one of the most inexperienced candidates in history helped to devalue experience as an attribute for potential presidential candidates.
He broke his promise to unify: Obama’s Disdain for Bipartisan Cooperation
"He ended up having a very bad relationship with congress at a time when the Democrats controlled Congress. He never worked with them. There was no art of compromise, and in the past it was just totally different. The stories are legion about how the presidents who really got things done and worked with the other side… LBJ with civil rights, Bill Clinton, Reagan and O’Neill on their budgets. They all knew they had to work together to get things done. He just didn’t have a clue or didn’t want to govern in the heavy-lifting kind of way that people of my generation are used to seeing". -Dad
One of my parents’ biggest complaints about President Obama was that he put in little effort to promote bipartisanship. In their view, the most glaring evidence of this was in his relationship with Congress.While polarization and party loyalty are nothing new in the two-party U.S.political system, Obama’s failure to promote unity is ironic given the fact that he ran his campaign on the promise of bringing people together.
President Obama and his supporters often frame the former president’s famously bitter conflict with Congress as entirely rooted in the GOP’s commitment to oppose him and his agenda at every turn. Republican opposition to Obama clearly existed as evidenced by items such as ObamaCare debate and the 2011 government shutdown led by far right figures such as Ted Cruz. However, I can see why Obama’s critics believe this argument is reductive and myopic. The reality of a two party system is that the executive in power has faced resistance from the opposing party since this country was founded. Before addressing the validity of this claim, it is also important to remember that Obama was one of the most partisan presidential candidates in history. During his three years in the senate, President Obama voted in accordance with his party 96 percent of the time. By comparison, John McCain had voted with his party 86 percent of the time. The National Journal even ranked President Obama as having the most liberal record in the senate in 2007 based on an analysis of key votes. Given this, it makes sense that Republicans would feel lukewarm about him at best when he entered office. In addition, Republicans were the minority in both the House and Senate when he took office. As we are seeing with the Democrats in the now Republican controlled congress, it is the duty and tendency of the congressional minority to strongly and vocally oppose and voice dissent in policy.
Obama and his supporters’ notion that the Republican Congress was completely unwilling to work with him is not totally grounded. In 2010 before the midterm elections, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “If President Obama does a Clintonian backflip, if he’s willing to meet us halfway on some of the biggest issues, it’s not inappropriate for us to do business with him… I don’t want the president to fail; I want him to change. So, we’ll see. The next move is going to be up to him”. It is easy to see why many on the left oppose some Republican policies. However, if the president cannot go the extra mile to hear Republicans’ concerns, those politicians and the people they represent will feel unrepresented and resentful.
Part of a leader’s job is to acknowledge the resistance and work all the more harder to bring people together, listen to their concerns, and try to learn from each other in order to craft policy that takes a large amount of perspectives and people into account. When I talked to my parents, they reminded me that at times Obama seemed to be more concerned with pushing legislation through quickly than hearing a wide-range of concerns and incorporating Republican feedback. This assertion is backed up by many of Obama’s strategies, such as his “We Can’t Wait” campaign, in which Obama resorted to executive orders to institute his preferred economic policies despite republican resistance to his proposed American Jobs Act in congress. While President Obama enacted less executive orders than many of his predecessors, his insistence on using them to push important policies through in the face of opposition lends credibility to some Republicans’ belief that he governed in an authoritarian nature. Of course, many also argue that President Obama only resorted to this strategy due to constant Republican obstructionism. Even if this perspective is correct, it is easy to see why many Republicans felt snubbed by President Obama after he initially took office, which contributed to their lack of willingness to work with him.
Republican Ray Lahood, President Obama’s Transportation Secretary, also argued that Obama gave up on bipartisanship early on in his first term. One example he cites is that instead of working with Republicans on the Stimulus Bill, Obama depended on Democratic votes and took advantage of the fact that the Republicans were in the minority. Lahood called this incident “the beginning of the end of bipartisanship”.
In incidences of disagreement with Congress, President Obama often resorted to governing by executive order through his famous “Pen and Phone Strategy” and showed an acute disdain for working with Republicans. While they didn’t see eye to eye, it is easy to see how Obama stoked divisions with republicans in Congress. Regarding his use of executive orders, Obama touted, “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone. And I can use that pen to sign executive orders and take executive actions and administrative actions”. Not only does this show a streak of authoritarianism that can make opposition feel powerless, but it also makes his policies easily reversible. We are seeing the problem with this now, as changeovers in power allow the new president to undo all of his work with the stroke of a pen. In addition, setting the precedent of governing by executive order has opened the door for Trump take this approach as well. We can now see the dangers of governing in this fashion, and how dangerous it can be when put in the wrong hands.
Style over substance
"On the 'Yes We Can' - what are we trying to do, potty train a baby? And then he says that, if you go past the sound of what he says and look at his words, they lack substance. For example, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for”. But then why have we been waiting, cause we’ve been there all along?”. -Dad
Obama rose in popularity quickly, and ran what seemed to be a rock-star type of campaign. He has been lauded by the left for being a brilliant orator. However, his campaigning style has long been criticized for relying more on charisma than on substance and detailed policy. Looking back on the “Change we can believe in” and “Yes we can” mantras, Obama seemed to prioritize charisma and getting people excited over providing specific and detailed police goals. In campaigning, President Obama has been accused of relying on his exceptional oratory abilities to rocket him to the White House. While this was an effective strategy, and especially for someone often considered conventionally attractive and confident, it is not one that will win over those skeptical of demagogues.
One cannot blame Obama for playing to his strengths while campaigning. However, he did set an example by advertising flashy words and promises of hope and change, which many Americans felt overshadowed discussions about details of policy. Running on “hope” and “change” as your main message seems to play to the trend we have been seeing of reactionary politics, in supporting anyone who promises to be drastically different from their predecessor. Not only is this strategy divisive and empty, but it also contributes to valuing charismatic demagoguery over providing detailed plans for achievable goals. We can see from Trump’s rise to power how this trend can be particularly dangerous when the candidate is corrupt and spewing dangerous ideology. Obama’s reliance on this style, which carried on well into his presidency, is particularly disappointing given his brilliance and passion.
In office, President Obama worked hard to create positive changes in the country. However, many of his initiatives, most notably the ACA, were left to Congress to draft. Obama was seen by some as a president who often paid little attention to the details and heavy lifting needed to create lasting and effective legislation, many times relying on others to do this for him. We can see the negative effects of this now, with all of the problems surrounding the ACA. Another notorious example of Obama’s disregard for details was his lack of a specific policy in Syria, which even his former aides Anne-Marie Slaughter and Vali Nasr criticized. Similar to his campaign, he followed a pattern of making moralistic speeches that sounded pretty tired over time. From many people’s perspective, Obama would deliver a speech and expect congressional approval to magically happen.
On Anti-Obama sentiment and race
Before ending this article, I want to address the inevitable challenge of separating valid and useful criticisms of former President Obama from those motivated by racism and other forms of bigotry. I have heard a lot of people attribute all criticisms of Obama to racism. And in a country built on racism and ethnic cleansing, racism clearly plays a role in how strongly Obama, the nation’s first black president, has been criticized. This element is undeniable, and is especially prevalent in the right wing media’s portrayal of him. However, automatically attributing any criticism of him to race seems tokenizing and ignorant of systemic problems that exist. Trying to understand and hold Obama accountable should not be seen as a validation of complaints that only come from the right or from racists. As the leader of the most powerful empire in the world, Obama’s actions have far-reaching effects, and as the leader of the country for the past eight years, we cannot divorce him from playing a role in where the country and world are today.
I have heard a lot of leftists say that they are convinced that the only reason a large contingent of the population had a problem with Obama is because of his race. However, whether or not you agree with people’s qualms with him, if you can only identify race as the single point of contention in the Obama debate, then it is hard to believe you have been listening to large swaths of this country’s population from many sides of the political aisle. People from many sides of the political spectrum have had problems with Obama, on both policy and style. According to the New York Times, approximately one in four of white working class voters who supported President Obama in 2012 later defected and voted for either Donald Trump or a third party candidate instead of Hillary Clinton. While this statistic doesn’t eliminate the possibility of racial prejudice from voters, it does suggest that race was not the primary or decisive reason why many voters had a problem with President Obama and his party. All of this being said, evaluating criticisms demands scrutiny, and racism and other forms of prejudice never belong in legitimate debates or performance evaluations.
The intention of this article is not simply to bash Obama or diminish his aforementioned accomplishments. Rather, I hope that reviewing Obama’s shortcomings can serve as a warning about how damaging certain behaviors and attitudes can be for even the best executive. When we think about what makes a good leader, policy may be the biggest and most important factor in evaluating an executive’s performance, but leadership skills be a central focus of our evaluations as well. Despite the deep love many have for Obama, he clearly lacked effective leadership capabilities. This is not a problem that has only affected his likability amongst Americans, but it has also undercut and distracted many from appreciating some of the great policies he passed in the name of progress. In addition, this unfortunate reality may have contributed to the election of Donald Trump. Behavior matters. Decorum, good political strategy, and pragmatism should not necessarily be seen as inauthentic or selling out. Bipartisan cooperation should be praised, rather than automatically criticized by either side as compromising one’s values.
In examining some critiques of Obama, we can also begin to think of qualities that we must place more value on than we may have in the past. It is my hope that we can hold even our favorite leaders to the highest standard, and regain an appreciation for effective leadership that calls people in and allows us to unite around common values of humanity. Confidence must not morph into arrogance. Our leaders must be judged on their humility and listening skills as much as they are on their speaking skills. Details of policy should be scrutinized, and we must return to making experience one of the most, and if not the most important criteria for serving in the Office of the President. In addition, it is imperative that we avoid traps such as elitism and classism that will rightfully alienate those who these sentiments target. While it may not be true in every position, the executive must be someone who loves this country and its people even when that feels like the hardest job in the world. That is the only way we are going to get out of the mess that we are currently in.
Photo: "Obama, Barack Obama, President" originally taken by 271277 for Pixabay. No changes were made. Use of this photo does not indicate an endorsement from its creator.