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March 23, 2010

Why Obama Is Not The Leader You Thought He Was

The historic health-care reform package just passed is, I believe, really good news.

There are *tons* of issues with the bill. For a brief sampling, you should check out Reihan Salam’s recent assessments of the cost-containing measures and projections for deficit. Ross Douthat is similarly good on this. Jonathan Chait tries to put a good spin on all of this, but there are some major IFs in cost-containment in the next decade. Nonetheless, the fact of the matter is that health insurance will now be a central part of the US legislative process. We will have millions of people insured that were not previously insured and Congress will be empowered to regulate and monitor our massive health insurance industry.

Who do we have to thank for all this work?

(I love this one by Tom Toles, via Ezra Klein.)

Prior to this historic day, there were a lot of people complaining that Obama wasn’t a true leader, he was not out in front of health care legislation (and these criticisms are not from the right). I have always felt that the claims about Obama’s leadership or lack thereof would be resolved after the bill was either a success or a failure. If it failed, then Obama failed as a leader. If it passed, as it now has, he would be redeemed as a leader.

But, still, there are some lingering questions about this Obama presidency. In many ways the administration is a paradox. On the one hand, it has assembled the best and the brightest minds in one place. One would think that all of these impressive folks would have a clear sense of direction and would lead with resolve. But on the other hand, Obama seems to want to drive from the back of the bus.

In health care, Obama turned things over to the House and Senate, let the “backdoor” negotiations and committees determine the nuts and bolts of the bill, and eventually completely lost the narrative on health care reform. But then, at the last minute, he seemed to come swooping in with a determination to close the deal. What is going on? Wouldn’t it have been simpler for Obama to lead with a clear message and then force everyone to follow in behind him? I know that this is what a lot of people on the left have been yearning for. But I don’t think this is, fundamentally, Obama’s style.

Barack Obama is the Community Organizer in Chief.

I believe that his style and his politics were cast during his days working in the grassroots of Chicago politics. I think he fundamentally believes that in order to effect great change, he has to get large numbers of people on board. He believes that the way to lead is by giving everyone a stake in the outcome, managing differences as best as possible, and coalescing around a common objective. This style is a “back of the bus” type of leadership. He is a shepherd, not a general.

We have not had a president quite like this before. And there could be no greater contrast between the CEO-style ‘with ‘im or against ‘im’ nature of George W Bush than Obama’s.

More than that, I actually think there is something fundamentally democratic about the way Obama approaches leadership. It’s messy and frustrating, to be sure. But I think it better reflects the aspirations of the majority. It better reflects the sense of shared sovereignty that is at the heart of a representative democracy.

There is a lot of talk about getting back to the intentions of our “founding fathers.” I wonder if their intentions are not appropriately manifest in Barack Obama’s leadership style.

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Nathan Smith

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