Crisis and Leadership: Lessons from Barack Obama


For the longest time, the press and the Republicans have whined that in the current government shutdown and impending default threats, President Obama has failed to lead. You cannot turn on any 24-hour cable news channel without hearing some pundit whining about the lack of presidential leadership. Even those who correctly place the blame on the Republicans for the suicide-bombing caucus inflicted wound on America don't miss a chance to brandish their pundit credentials by charging President Obama as MIA in a leadership role.

They base this accusation on the fact that the president has refused to negotiate with a gun to America's head and to pay ransom to the Tea Party. What these pundits miss is that that refusal is the leadership the president needed to provide at this critical juncture in history, and he has passed that test with flying colors.

Think about this with a long term view. Seeing the presidency slip from them, the far Right radical Republicans are attempting to write a dangerous new norm into American policymaking: government by extortion. They are trying to normalize the behavior of a fringe to demand ransom for the simple fact that Congress would do its job. The idea is to get with extortion what they could not - and likely have decided no longer can - win at the ballot box, or they break the government and wreck the world economy. They are trying to turn democracy on its head.

This cannot be allowed to happen. America cannot indefinitely continue to govern by manufactured crises, or give into extortion to end one such crisis only until another is manufactured. We especially cannot accept that a small fringe can manipulate the political process to effectively end a law that they cannot outright repeal.

And so, the president's job, as not simply the head of government but the leader of our republic, is not to attempt to Congress' job for them. The president's job is to ensure that the American form of government - a representative democracy - is protected not just for his presidency but for future presidents and future Congresses. What the president needed to do as a leader is to crush the forces of government-by-extortion and make them understand, once and for all, America does not negotiate with economic terrorists.

I should note here that this dynamic is fundamentally different from what happened in 2011. Too many on the Left and the Right confuse the 2011 debt ceiling crisis with this one - and sometimes misguidedly believe that the only reason the president is standing firm now is because he does not want a repeat of 2011. That is in part true, however, in 2011, the president was dealing with a new Congress that - for better or for worse (and generally, for the worse) - was the result of a legitimate, and severe, electoral loss for Democrats. At that time, despite the pattern of behavior being similar, the Republicans were not trying to achieve through extortion what they could not achieve through the ballot box. They won a big victory. They may have legitimately believed that they won a mandate to use any means necessary to cut the budget.

Which brings us to the second, and perhaps the more key, difference - the 2011 turmoil, terrifying as it was, still was entirely about the budget, and the Republicans, politically in a much stronger position than now, did not attempt to repeal or delay the Affordable Care Act through the budget process. They did not try to extort the president and the Democratic Senate into repealing a law they could not repeal through regular order. This time is different. This time, Republicans planned this crisis to reverse a law they could not reverse by winning elections, or challenging it in the courts.

What the Tea Party controlled GOP launched with this crisis is a war on the American form of government. In war, a president leads as the Commander in Chief, and leadership is about finding a strategy to crush the enemy - America's domestic enemy, the Tea Party. To say that the president has been successful in his is an understatement. He has, from the beginning, laid out a clear principle: Congress does not get to collect ransom in exchange for doing its basic duty, and Congress does not get to drag laws they cannot otherwise repeal into budget fights. The president has been strong, decisive, and effective in making the GOP face the consequences of its own actions. That the Senate Republican leader today is left negotiating the terms of his party's surrender is in good part a result of the president's resolve.

The president has brought the Republican establishment and the Republican party's backers face-to-face with their own Frankenstein, and forced them to take on the Tea Party. The president has exposed the radical Republican agenda and made Republicans on the Hill face down their Tea Party colleagues, and left them scurrying to put this politically disastrous episode behind them.

That is leadership. That is exactly the leadership a president at this moment needed to provide. That is precisely the leadership this president has provided. Chew on that for a minute, pundits.