Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Limits of Presidential Leadership

Presidents struggle to take charge when crises befall the nation. In the immediate aftermath of disaster, whether it be the terrorist attacks of September 11, Katrina, or a massive oil spill, Presidents Bush and Obama alike have been accused of being slow to take charge. Despite the conventional narrative that crises unite the country and cause us to rally round the flag, the truth is that the American presidency is not an institution to which we quickly rally around because we have unrealistic expectations of what presidents can and should do.

While it has become a presidential cliché to declare, Harry Truman believed, that the "buck stops here," it never does. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the oil spill disaster in the Gulf. The reason why the cliché doesn't work is that even if the president may have the will to take charge, he cannot be responsible for someone else's mistake, and even he is, he and the federal government lacks the technological resources to clean up BP's spill. Incidentally, the first branch, Congress, ought to have some responsibility too.

Like the press and the American people, the White House clearly has not worked out the ethical boundaries of culpability versus responsibility, which it why it has floundered in articulating, exercising, and then defending the proper role of government in handling the present crisis. All this is compounded by the fact that the American media demands and expects a semblance of control even as nature and a complex reality stacks up against one.

While everyone is asking for it, no one knows what leadership means in this situation. If asked, talking heads would each have a different answer. The fact remains that the White House does not have plenary control over corporations and regulatory agencies, nor should it. The President can entreat other oil companies to chip in, but he does not have the authority to command them to do so. The President can pressure BP to be transparent about its operations, but he cannot seize BP's assets or command a corporation to deploy its assets whichever way the White House directs.

And so the President has made repeated trips to the Gulf to show that whether or not he is in charge, he is at least in the loop and emotionally invested. Empathy, apparently, is a virtue in presidents if not in judges. We desire "activist" presidents, but events do not always permit them. If we insist on turning leadership into messiahship, we should hardly be surprised at the president's showmanship.

Given the contested and myriad models of leadership being purveyed on the Left and Right, it behoves the President, at the very least, to decide exactly and then defend what his leadership amounts to. If Obama believes that the buck really stops at the White House, then, as the Left desires, the regulatory power of the federal goverment must be considerably increased. If he does not want bigger government, then he needs to educate the American people and the Right that the buck really doesn't stop with government, but at civil society or somewhere else. Right now Obama hasn't made up his mind, but in this vaccillation he is trying to have his cake and eat it as he tries to appear in charge without taking charge. The first task of leadership is to decide what is leadership. And that our president has not yet done.

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