Steve's Blog

On Presidential Leadership

One of the people I follow on Twitter recently retweeted a complaint that President Obama, whose Democratic party got shellacked in the 2016 election, failed as "national leader" of that party. Then concluded that he had no right to give advice to the Democratic Party for the future. This is wrong on a number of levels.

President as Leader of His Party

First, the U.S. is not a parliamentary democracy. For various reasons, the founders chose a tripartite scheme for the national government, in which the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary each have unique powers. Further, those powers are deliberately arranged so that each branch can restrict the others' powers. Certainly, the President has to play a leadership role in his (or her, though "her" hasn't happened yet) party. But broadly speaking, that role is that of the figurehead which leads the ship. The President does not wield a party whip the way that the Prime Ministers of Britain or Japan do.

The elected members of a political party represent geographical districts. In the national legislature, Representatives and Senators frequently have had careers in state or municipal politics as well. In the U.S., especially the states have substantial regulatory responsibility and power, but all levels of government have the power to tax. Having had that experience of power, I expect the most members of Congress have a tendency toward independence, and a strong motivation to work on behalf of their district and the powerful interests there. The President can do only so much to lead them in other directions.

Other leaders of the President's party are the leading members of Congress (the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority leader), and those who hold the purse-strings of the party's national committee. In fact, more so than the President, they have much more power over individual members' day-to-day concerns: the committees on which they will sit, and prospects for reelection.

Of course the President must be more than just a figurehead, at least if he wants to be praised by historians. But his task is very difficult, especially if he faces a legislature controlled by the opposite party. As we have seen many times during the last 50 years, in split government the Congress is willing and able to undermine the President's policies, and recently opposition parties have been willing to hold up provision of services all agree are beneficial to get their way.

Symbolic Leadership

President Obama has broken a couple of taboos that I give him credit for. He openly advocated a world order without nuclear weaponry (though I was somewhat embarrassed that he got the Nobel Peace Prize for merely saying so). He has acknowledged the existence of climate change, and accepted that humankind, especially residents of the rich world, has a responsibility for studying and combatting it. He visited Hiroshima and expressed regret (though not apology), which puts him one-up on the Japanese leadership which even today refuses to acknowledge responsibility for Japanese behavior in the war. It will be interesting to see the effects of Prime Minister Abe's reciprocal visit to Pearl Harbor.

And, of course, Barack Obama is black. I'm really not sure what that means as far as leadership goes. On the one hand, there are racist elements who hate him for his race and for his Muslim association by place of birth. On the other, if you couldn't see his face you couldn't tell him from any other Chicago lawyer by listening to him. Surely he has faced discrimination, but on the other hand he's never lived on the dole. His life experience is more shaped by membership in the elite than by race-motivated oppression as far as I can see. And his policies, including the ACA, have been motivated by concern for the economic condition of the working poor and lower middle class, more so than by redress of race- or immigration-status-specific oppression. For me, the bottom line is that having faced racial oppression, even to a limited degree, he still harbored the ambition to be President and achieved it. I'll put that one in the leadership "plus" column.

I don't think that Donald Trump will be able to retract any of these positions on behalf of the United States. Not even on climate change. American scientists will continue to research climate change, and they are already taking defensive action to preserve data and protect the positions of climate researchers in U.S. government agencies. Certainly he can inhibit funding and international agreements during his term, but Obama already broke through previous administrations' denial.

More important to the original topic of this essay, Democratic Party members and politicians will continue to advocate these positions as part of their defining philosophy, I think. In that sense, Obama has effectively led his party.

Legislative Leadership

Despite the scorched-earth policies of the Republicans in Congress, President Obama was able to get the ACA implemented. The Act as passed has many problems, but the basic problems of American health care were at least acknowledged. First, most Americans are at risk of serious deterioration in their health care due to skyrocketing costs. While the ACA doesn't address the fundamental causes of those costs, and arguably made many upper middle-class Americans worse off (specifically, those who are self-employed or work on short-term contracts), the basic thrust of increasing coverage is both morally and actuarially right. The problems with the Act basically result from defining risk pools on political and vested interest lines, rather than actuarially sensible definitions. And, of course, the underlying reasons for cost inflation (treatment and drugs costs, focus on remedial rather than preventive care, inefficient industry organization and bureaucracy, aging population) haven't been addressed.

Nevertheless, Obama's leadership has been successful. At the same time that Republican leaders froth about "Obamacare", they realize that the numbers show that coverage is at record highs, and insist that they will not allow that to regress. The ACA may be repealed, but the Republicans realize that they are going to have to provide a substitute for the hated insurance exchanges, and they are going to have to provide subsidies to lower-income insurees.

Advice from Failure

Even if you disagree with my assessment of the degree of success Obama has enjoyed as a leader, or with my methodology (I've picked out what I consider to be (partial) success stories, which I think are the relevant ones to the question of "leadership"), finally there is the proverb "those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it". Who knows better where he failed than Obama himself? Listening to his advice doesn't mean to accept it wholesale. Even if you don't adopt the practices he recommends, surely they reflect aspects of his administration that he thinks can be done better. Identifying and understanding the problems that his advice is intended to solve is surely a valuable exercise. Deciding whether they are indeed priorities, and if so, how to address them, is up to the next generation of leaders. But surely listening to the previous generation is a good idea.

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Stephen J. Turnbull