WASHINGTON, August 24, 2014 – President Obama issued a severe, carefully prepared statement after the murder of American photojournalist James Foley. He then raised bipartisan hackles by going directly to another round of golf.
As Obama’s press secretary observed, golf can be an excellent stress reliever. The president is never fully on vacation, taking his office with him wherever he goes, and sitting in a bunker does him no good. Nor does it help anyone else.
Obama and his aids seem clearly to view the presidency as an exercise in management. The president is an administrator, constantly in touch with the organization that he leads and constantly prepared to step in and manage it when his underlings are incapable of doing it on their own.
That technocratic view looks at the United States government as simply a very large business enterprise. If it is well administered – an “if” that most Americans aren’t willing to grant – there is no reason for us to care that it is administered from a golf course rather than a board room. The president’s job is to run the business, nothing less or more.
In fact, America’s most successful presidents have seen their job not to manage the nation, but to lead it.
The actual powers of the presidency are very different from, and often less than Americans often imagine. The center of power in our system of government is Congress, which writes and votes on the laws that the president enforces. The president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he nominates people as judges and cabinet secretaries, he signs or vetoes legislation, but he is not the author of the law. He is its enforcer.
If the president’s constitutional powers are limited, his influence is as great as he can make it. He doesn’t control the economy, but he can talk it up or down. He is not a dictator or a king, but he can set the nation’s priorities, excite the people to support great programs, and push Congress one way or another by the power of persuasion and the bully pulpit.
A great president excites people into following him, lays out a compelling vision, and instills people with the confidence that it can be achieved. He does it not by pulling the levers of power, but by influencing perceptions of people who follow freely, without compulsion.
Leadership is about “the vision thing.” It isn’t about management. That is why Obama’s time on the golf course is so striking. He clearly sees himself as a manager, not as a leader.
That some elements of leadership are superficial doesn’t make them unimportant. It really wouldn’t matter that Obama go golfing after speaking about Foley’s murder, except for the fact that it looks bad. And looking bad, it is bad – at least for the president’s leadership.
Obama has lost his ability even to excite the Democratic faithful. The New York Times has turned on him, late night TV hosts are mocking him. He’s tanking in the polls, and you’d have a hard time finding anyone who think that he really understands or cares about the travails of regular Americans.
President Obama has no leadership, and he has no class. His post-Foley golf game was not just bad optics, but a complete failure to understand what people would think of it or to care. This matters not just at home, but abroad.
It would be difficult to identify the principles on which Obama’s foreign policy rests. It would be fair to say that that’s a perennial problem with American foreign policy, but in Obama’s case it goes beyond mere waffling between Realpolitik and city-on-a-hill idealism. His foreign policy seems entirely geared at domestic expediency, turning it into just a campaign tool.
That alienates us from our allies, and undermines our credibility with our enemies. The Middle East is an ancient swamp of religious and ethnic hatreds, but Obama has eliminated the United States as a serious threat to extreme bad behavior. Ukraine was a corrupt and mismanaged mess before Obama came along, but it’s clear that Russia’s response counted the U.S. as nearly irrelevant.
America doesn’t have the military power to make the world safe, or even to solve the problems of the Middle East. All we have is moral authority and the power of leadership to try to move the world in a better direction, and under Obama we have neither.
In the game of international politics, reputation is everything, and as in other areas, it takes years to earn a reputation, and just an instant to destroy it. In building and destroying a reputation, it isn’t just what you do that matters, but how people perceive it. America is not perceived well.
Obama’s golf game is just one small symptom of a presidency that has no leadership and no depth. Obama is incapable of fixing it, because he is incapable of understanding what has gone wrong.