Thursday, July 26, 2012

Barack H. Obama: The “Non Partisan” Report Card


“Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes.”
Peter Drucker

When Obama became President in January, 2009 he and his party had a mandate from the country to lead them to greater unity, fewer unnecessary wars of choice and greater economic prosperity for all, not just a few. That meant lowering the debt, less wasted expenditure and most of all, a more efficient Federal government that once again was working for the people. His was a mandate to mend a dysfunctional political process and a broken country. What a grand mandate for any man wanting to become a great leader. Obama’s message of HOPE had not only resonated with a hungry electorate, but also energised and rallied a new generation that had never come out to vote before. Amazingly, Obama had managed to appeal to a broad swath of Americans in the middle, and reached across the political divide at a time when the country was more divided than ever before in its history. Even perhaps daring a few sworn enemies to believe that maybe this was the change the country had been thirsting for after sixteen years of unzipped pants and unwarranted swagger.

When Obama won the election in 2008, I wrote off his first few years in office based on his lack of experience, naivety and because he was not a career politician (albeit this was also, in large part the reason I liked the man - and felt he had a chance to succeed and help America – the fact that he was not a jaded career politician). However, he has failed to turn his charisma and words into real leadership and there has also been an odd dichotomy in his approach to the foreign and domestic fronts. In foreign affairs, his judgement, decisiveness and handling have paid great dividends for America, and will reap even greater one's in the long run based on his policy choices. He stood his ground on Egypt, under tremendous pressure from Israel, Republicans and members of his own party, and came out on the right side for both America and democracy. No doubt it will be a long, blood-filled and arduous road for Egypt but that is the only way democracy can be forged. Most importantly it is the path chosen by the people of Egypt and not one dictated by America or Israel’s interests in the region. On Libya he forced Europe to take the lead in military intervention, and again it proved to be the smarter and better move for America. But it is with his handling of US-Pakistan relations that I have been most impressed. He is the first American President to take off the kid gloves and give them less room to continue their double game, while receiving US aid. The man also ordered a US military raid on their soil without so much as asking permission - that took courage to do against a “key ally”. The result of Obama refusing to cower, mollycoddle and constantly apologise, like all his predecessors, has led to a more obedient and co-operative ally that now thinks twice before calling America’s bluff because there are real consequences each time they do.

However, at home he has been an often absent and detached leader, on all major domestic issues he has shown little desire to take charge or lead the way. It almost feels like he is perfectly content letting “his people” run the show and lead him. People like Larry Summers on economic policy, and Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid on his signature legislation's. This at a time when the country needed a real leader, who would step up to the plate, outline a vision and then roll up his sleeves and work to bridge the divide on the Hill, reduce the vitriol and enact real solutions to grave issues facing this country. Nobody was expecting Obama to solve ALL the problems, or perform miracles and have Republicans and Democrats hugging and singing Kumbaya, but I was expecting him to at least take one or two big issues and make meaningful progress. One of Obama’s signature pieces of legislation, the healthcare bill, is 1,990 pages long (not unusual for spending bills which routinely run into 1,000’s of pages). It should be a major embarrassment for a President who swore to introduce transparency, clarity and simplicity into the process of legislation. While there is no doubt that there are some wonderful and much needed things in this bill, many parts of it are equally opaque, poorly conceived, written by lobbyists and filled with needless pork. And not one Republican voted for it. What’s more I cannot find anywhere who actually authored this bill. Then you have his other major legislation; the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform and Regulatory bill where Obama promised when signing "The American people will never again be asked to foot the bill for Wall Street's mistakes. There will be no more tax-funded bailouts — period." (Source: NPR News). However, the landscape of the financial sector has changed dramatically since this law was passed, not to mention the fact that the law itself was obviously hastily written and poorly conceived. They took scant time to write and pass it even though they were dealing with matters that were arguably larger than America itself. Besides, would it not have been prudent to first fully understand the causes and consequences of this complex, multi-layered and global crisis before penning a law to fix it? Here is one example of this haste: “SECTIONS 404 and 406 of the Dodd-Frank law of July 2010 add up to just a couple of pages. On October 31st last year two of the agencies overseeing America's financial system turned those few pages into a form to be filled out by hedge funds and some other firms; that form ran to 192 pages. The cost of filling it out, according to an informal survey of hedge-fund managers, will be $100,000-150,000 for each firm the first time it does it.”  (The Economist, February 2012). Also absent from the proceedings was any leadership from Obama; I expected him to lead from the front on both these colossal issues, bring the various stakeholders, across the political divide, to the table and forge solid, sensible, hard-fought solutions that put the country’s future ahead of any party or political brownie points.

The first red flag, for me, came right after the inauguration when Obama announced his core leadership team. The people he chose were mostly washed out Clinton-era advisers and Bush one and two era bureaucrats and policy wags, who brought with them the baggage of the past and more worryingly the same partisan ways of thinking and functioning that had become so cemented in the later Bush years. The next thing that shook my confidence in Obama was his acceptance of The Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples". Obama had given a few glorious speeches at this stage and perhaps even been a great community organizer. Sure he had become President of the United States of America (only the 44th man in history), but that alone does not qualify one for the Nobel Prize. Call me old fashioned but I believe that one has to actually achieve something before accepting an honour for the achievement. An honourable man would have declined it based on the simple fact that they had not yet earned it. I suspect this was in large part of the beginning of the unraveling of Obama; the point at which he began to drink his own Kool-Aid and start to believe the hype and hysteria about him. Obama put himself on the same pedestal (that much of the world had) based on his words. He had not yet proven that he belonged on it, through his actions. Sadly, no matter how you cut it, the bottom line is that he has failed to become a leader or demonstrate the type of leadership the country needed after eight years of disastrous shoot-from-the-hip politics and cowboy-style management. People can make all the excuses they want about the mess Obama inherited (and there is no question that he did inherit one), but leadership is about taking on great adversity. About locking horns with it and staring it down until you have found a path to overcome it. Great leaders relish taking on the greatest challenges. They lay out a vision, then work to forge alliances, even bringing east and west together on issues, and they find real solutions to problems; lesser men and politicians make excuses and speeches.

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