There are two models of leadership afloat. The old one can be conjured up with images from an old western movie where the captain on horseback has his hand up signaling for the rest of the cavalry to mount an attack. It is leadership as control, presumably control based on wisdom and knowledge. The newer one is leadership as facilitating the empowerment of others. The main leadership skill in this case is the ability to listen well.
The two models are in direct conflict as this really excellent piece by Chris Argyris from almost 30 years ago, The Executive Mind and Double-Loop Learning, clearly illustrates. If you are a commander whose authority shouldn't be challenged you don't listen to others providing evidence that is contrary to your view. Further, in the social dynamic that such a circumstance creates, underlings are afraid to speak their own minds, even if they disagree with you. So the old approach can produce dissension in the ranks and gridlock.
Argyris calls the old approach Model I and the new approach Model II. Most of us develop a preconception about leadership as Model I from the movies, or books or simply from being aware that the President is Commander in Chief. However, if you get some leadership training in a professional development workshop nowadays, you will almost certainly be instructed in Model II - leadership is getting others to lead, or so the saying goes.
Yet the Model I notion of leadership remains and many "champion" business executives are known for their authoritarian decision making style - think Michael Bloomberg or Rupert Murdoch. This is where the issue begins to become murky, because we also think of leaders who have a vision and their ability to create a vision is the real source of their power - think Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. Recognizing that this ability to create a powerful vision is something that only a few have, followers are willing to accept Model I leadership when the person at the top has a proven track record for being able to deliver on the vision.
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Today, seemingly on the verge of passing legislation to raise the Debt Ceiling, there have been several pieces that have said the experience leading up to the deal has diminished President Obama. Paul Krugman writes The President Surrenders - the President gave away the farm in the negotiations that led to a deal and he opened himself up to future bouts of hostage taking by the Republicans. Ross Douthat writes The Diminished President - where the President failed to articulate a vision of where he wanted these budget negotiations to go and where on Foreign Policy, here Libya in particular, the President plays his hand lukewarm instead of going all in, Leading from Behind it is now called. Krugman and Douthat are writing Op-Ed pieces. Consider the following from a news analysis piece called After Protracted Fight, Both Sides Emerged Bruised:
But the fine print of the agreement makes clear that Republicans received more of what they demanded than did Mr. Obama, who acquiesced in his initial call for a balanced mix of spending cuts and new revenues, despite repeatedly trying to seize the bully pulpit to build support for his argument.I have also been of this mindset myself and well before these recent negotiations came to a head. I've been wondering for almost a year whether we should have supported Hillary Clinton in 2008 instead of Barack Obama. She clearly would have been more directly confrontational with the Republicans and maybe that's what was needed. Not that she could have made the economy better than Obama did, at least not in 2009, but tone in office my have very well influenced the election in 2010. One of the things that gets under reported is how low turnout was then compared to 2008 and how the unemployed, in particular, stayed away from the polls in 2010.
For many liberals, this concession — and the president’s unwillingness to make a more full-throated case for greater action to address joblessness and protect other Democratic priorities — could undermine legislative support for the deal and increase the challenge of motivating voters in 2012.The White House and the Senate may be controlled by Democrats, but the debate unfolded squarely on Republican turf. It is yet another sign of how the country’s politics have changed since Mr. Obama’s term began, and of the new climate facing Republicans who are jockeying for the chance to challenge the president next year.
In other words, we Democratic voters have been clamoring for a Model I leader in our President whose authority stems from crafting a vision for us. (This entire discussion with New York Times Columnists on Charlie Rose is a propos, but especially see at around the 8:25 mark Tom Friedman's response, which I found particularly poignant.) President Obama is approaching the job as Model II. So that produces disappointment, even in his supporters. However, everyone does recognize that Obama is extremely intelligent. He must understand the disappointment that he is creating by playing it so low keyed. So in the rest of this piece I want to play devil's advocate and try to make the argument that he's actually opted for the best course possible. Chest beating won't do the trick. It might create a needed emotional release but it won't produce a good outcome. It will only produce gridlock. The President needs to negotiate outcomes with Republican Leadership to practice the art of the possible.
Implicitly, we supporters seem to believe that if Obama makes the case for what he want very well and puts the argument forward with eloquence, as he did on his speech about race during the campaign, that it would move the nation sufficiently to also get the politics in Congress to move in that direction. Suppose that assumption is plain wrong. Except for the President each other elected official has a narrower constituency. Even if the nation as a whole has moved in the direction the President points to, if the particular constituency hasn't moved, then the Member of Congress won't move. Let's take that as as a given.
I do not understand the legal basis of the filibuster. I wish it weren't there at all. Whatever it's original intent, it has become something terrible. Unless there is a super majority in the Senate, the minority can effectively create gridlock, which is what has happened. This is both on legislation and on appointments. The case of Peter Diamond is perhaps the most illustrative because he had just (very deservedly) won the Nobel Prize for Economics and was and still is a middle of the road kind of guy. Richard Shelby effectively blocked Diamond's nomination to the Fed. There never even was a floor vote on his candidacy. Once Scott Brown got elected to the Senate, there was no super majority. And even when Ted Kennedy was alive, his poor health must have limited his appearance on the floor of the Senate. The new President had to confront the filibuster when Senators seem increasingly willing to use that tool.
So consider the political climate first. Next consider the tough choices that might have enabled what didn't happen in the Debt Ceiling debate, raising taxes on the rich. One way to do that would have been to let the Bush Tax Cuts lapse. Since the rich were the biggest beneficiaries from the cuts, they'd bear most of the pain if the cuts were to lapse. But it clearly wasn't possible to let the cuts lapse only on the rich. They'd have had to lapse for everyone and then Obama wouldn't have been able to get the temporary reduction in the payroll tax for 2011. Given the state of the economy, it's not hard to understand why the President made the choice he made. The issue will clearly come up again next year. It's likely to be a centerpiece of the election campaign. If the economy is still limping along then, the likely outcome, how should it play out? It does seem from the purely political angle it is much easier to simply let them lapse than to produce a more nuanced alternative. If Congress tries to make them permanent the President can veto that. Looking how Congress functions now, can anyone of the Democratic persuasion really believe that Congress can produce a desired nuanced alternative?
The third point is military expenditure, specifically in Afghanistan. On this one Obama actually was pretty visionary during the campaign - let's get out under a timetable. But Obama seemingly changed his mind in office, allowing the recent surge. It's unclear to me whether the surge had any relationship to getting Bin Laden. What does seem clear is that the situation is a mess and will remain that way. From here on out its damned if you do and damned if you don't. It was good for Obama to retain Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense for as long as he did. Gates could scold Congress about this war in a way Obama couldn't. But even if Obama completely delivers on his campaign pledge on this one, bringing troops home from a war we didn't win is not a way to energize the base.
The last point to bring up here is that almost immediately out of the box the political climate was poisoned. The Stimulus Bill of 2009 was passed in February 2009, very soon after Obama became president. The economy was reeling then so it was necessary, but the Republicans were dead against it. In that sense, that Bill was Model 1. Further because haste seemed a virtue at the time, the package was an amalgam of things that had been in the works for some time rather than projects all deriving from a single coherent philosophy that the President had previously articulated. In an emergency you do what you can. But it poisoned the waters from the get go and allowed all the demonizing rhetoric from the Republicans thereafter. It wasn't possible to ignore that and then to subsequently act like friends. Republicans consistently blocked further stimulus legislation until the lame duck session after the 2010 elections. The success of the lame duck session (even with its poison pills) pointed to a Model II approach.
As I said, I'm being the devil's advocate here. But there is some logic to the argument. Even if the Tea Party types have scared a lot of people so that the Democrats regain the House in 2012, is it reasonable to expect the Democrats will have a super majority in the Senate too? If not, what then? Is there a lesson from history to learn here? Harry gave them hell, but the Democrats lost the White House in 1952. Maybe Model II is the better way.