Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Is President Obama a leader?

Following yesterday's news conference, we are once again witnessing a flurry of criticism about President Obama's leadership. Here are a couple of examples.

Dana Milbank:
Obama is correct about the dysfunction, and the difficulty of passing even uncontroversial bills. But his stance was frustratingly passive, as if what happens in Congress is out of his hands. It’s the president’s job to lead, and to bang heads if necessary, regardless of any “permission structure.” Obama seemed oddly like a spectator, as if he had resigned himself to a reactive presidency.
Maureen Dowd:
Then he [President Obama] put on his best professorial mien to give his high-minded philosophy of governance: Reason together and do what’s right.

“But, Jonathan,” he lectured Karl, “you seem to suggest that somehow, these folks over there have no responsibilities and that my job is to somehow get them to behave. That’s their job. They are elected, members of Congress are elected in order to do what’s right for their constituencies and for the American people.”

Actually, it is his job to get them to behave. The job of the former community organizer and self-styled uniter is to somehow get this dunderheaded Congress, which is mind-bendingly awful, to do the stuff he wants them to do. It’s called leadership.
The argument many of us make about this is the one President Obama made...its time to hold the Republicans accountable! But I think its just as important that we stand back for a minute and ask what it is people mean by "leadership."

That question takes me back to something I wrote on that topic two years ago. I'm going to reprint a good portion of it today because I think its so important to keep in mind when these questions come up. I'll start with a quote from Marshall Ganz.
Another important distinction is that between leadership and domination. Effective leaders facilitate the interdependence or collaboration that can create more "power to" -- based on the interests of all parties. Domination is the exercise of "power over" --a relationship that meets interests of the "power wielder" at the expense of everyone else. 
Riane Eisler also talks about this:
Underneath all the complex and seemingly random currents and crosscurrents, is the struggle between two very different ways of relating, of viewing our world and living in it. It is the struggle between two underlying possibilities for relations: the partnership model and the domination model.
This difference between dominance (power over) and partnership (power with) is demonstrated well by this graph.

In our culture, most people think about power in the domains of power over/against (competition and dominance). But there are sparks of partnership power that rise up every now and then to remind us that for those of us without the benefits of money and position, it is where our power generally lies...

I've often talked about the fact that in his days as a community organizer, President Obama studied and taught about power relations. Its clear to me that he has an understanding of the power of partnership and is constantly calling on us to join him in exercising that power.

Practicing leadership from a position of "power with" requires that you have an independently strong ego and don't need to dominate in order to prop it up or feed it. And it also requires trust in the people you set out to lead. These are some of the characteristics I most admire about President Obama and ones that are often most misunderstood by his critics on the left and the right.

Its only natural that when people are so used to the power of dominance that they would dismiss the reality of the power of partnership. Its why we so often hear Obama criticized as weak and naive.

But history tells us that all of the battles won by the left in this country have been based on a partnership model of power...enough people finally spoke up in ways that couldn't be ignored. We see that in the battle for civil rights, unions, women's suffrage, anti-war, etc.

I think its time the left in this country began to recognize that feeding in to the power of dominance is not conducive to our concerns and is an abdication of democracy at its roots. In other words, its time we took Obama up on his offer to lead by partnership with us. As he said so often in the campaign..."we are the one's we've been waiting for."


Underneath all of that lies an assumption that leadership is the ability to use power to get what you want. Typically liberals have been pretty uncomfortable with the whole notion of power (ie, emos who prefer to stand on the sidelines and rage). I think that's because we equate power with dominance - which by definition means that those without power are oppressed. 

Embracing the idea of "power to/with" or the notion of partnership as a form of leadership seems to be something the Milbanks and Dowds of the world can't comprehend. And yet, as I said up above, its how almost all of the advances we've made in this country have come about. 

I would posit though, that Barack Obama is the first modern day president who is attempting to utilize the power of partnership. More commonly its been civil rights, labor, anti-war movement leaders who've embraced that kind of leadership to bring pressure from outside the system. That's why this quote from Michelle Obama about what her husband is doing has always fascinated me.
Barack is not a politician first and foremost. He's a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.
In other words, he's exploring the possibility of the power of partnership to make change from inside the system...that's his way of providing leadership.

In closing I'd just like to add that one of the things required by this kind of leadership is a willingness and ability to play the long game. That's because it requires a change of heart/mind rather than simply instilling the fear associated with dominance. For example, there were nine years that passed from the start of the Montgomery Bus Boycott until the passage of the Civil Rights Act...and we're still working on some of those issues today 50 years later.

I'd suggest that the reason so many are questioning President Obama's leadership today is because it has created quite a bit of chaos amongst the Republicans these days. One need only look at just how tough things look for the Orange Man to figure that one out. The battle lines were cleaner from 2010-2012 when it was simply Obama proposes/GOP opposes. Things are a bit more complicated right now. We're in a period of uncertainty about where the opposition is heading. That's at least a step in the right direction - and a direct result of President Obama's leadership.


  1. Sheer genius, Smartypants. At your most eloquent best.

  2. I agree that Obama thinks and operates this way. But how do we account for the fact that this style of leadership led him first to sign on to the sequester and then (Jan '13) fail to get it shut off? That does not strike me as an inevitable consequence of divided government and an intractable opposition.

    1. Sorry, but it is an inevitable consequence of divided government and intractable opposition. If it had been otherwise, the sequester would have never happened or even been proposed to begin with. It was proposed by the GOP because they thought they could work with the Tea Party caucus within their party. They were wrong.

      When will the leftie pundits get it through their thick heads that we have THREE branches of government who check and balance each other out? The GOP knows this, which is why they are obstructing. It's about time that complainers on the Left realized the same thing. We do not have an imperial Presidency. For me, this is the most damaging part of the Bush legacy. It got so many people comfortable with overreach of Presidential power. This is why I am repulsed that the guy also gets his own Presidential Library. Lefties who were angry at Bush for his overreach, now expect Obama to be the leftie version of him. Sorry, but it doesn't work that way.

    2. First, not signing on meant that we would default on our debt and second, this is the consequence of not following PBO's admonition to 'not give the keys back to the GOP' in '10. Why when PBO follows the Constitution, folks get mad at him for not being a dictator and make shit up like GWB?


  3. Does anyone know how I can get a job like Maureen Dowd that will let me actually write gibberish from the comfort of a chair, while drinking my morning coffee?

    I'm sure I can write a column that contains a bunch of words that I neatly squeezed together. And of course, my focus will always be to make myself appear smarter than the guy who actually won two presidential elections, despite my constant blathering about his lack of "leadership".

    This people are complete, total idiots.

  4. Wow, poor Maureen just doesn't get it, does she? The job of a community organizer is NOT to force govt. to do things, it's to help communities realize their own inherent power, so that THEY can get govt. to do what THEY want!

    President Obama will not be President forever. He only has four more short years to get the American community organized to the point that they recognize their own power. It would be one of his greatest legacies.

    If Dowd wants to criticize the President for not being the perfect Daddy, able to get teh kidz in Congress to behave, that's her (weird) prerogative. But couching her criticism in terms of community organizing is just batty.

    1. He only has four more short years to get the American community organized to the point that they recognize their own power. It would be one of his greatest legacies.


    2. Great post, SP. Also, the President joked about Dowd's dopey column about presidential arm-twisting at the White House Correspondents Dinner.

      And at the end of his speech when he got serious,as per your post he called upon these correspondents and other journalists to do their jobs responsibly and to stop acting like the Beltway version of Entertainment Tonight. In other words, to grow up. Obviously, some took umbrage and said fuck you to him.

    3. There's a good post by Brian Beutler at TPM that pretty much echoes your point, Smartypants.

    4. Anonymous @ 4:07:

      Thanks! That is a fantastic article by Beutler.

  5. Thank you Andrew Sullivan at the Dish... That's where I picked up your link Smartypants... The transformation in the political zeitgeist, has been very difficult to grasp, and much more difficult to accept. I can see why the political pundits have so much difficulty with it. We are witnessing true democracy in action and that's a good thing... Thanks for the great post...

  6. Brilliant, as per your usual.

    Would love to see you expand on this types of leadership, and how since the Powell Memo, and rise of the MBA's, we've seen how the partnership model, maybe best exemplified by the labor unions, has retreated in the the face of the corporatists in the Democratic Party.

    On the bright side, I think the next generation of leaders, starting with President Obama, understands this leadership better than many of us.

    1. Thanks Bill.

      Its interesting. I was talking to a co-worker after I wrote this post. He is aware of how closely I've followed PBO and why. His reaction was that it sounded like I had the makings of a book about leadership. The word "book" scares the hell outta me. But in both my professional life and as a political junkie, this is a topic I've been wrestling with for the last 15 years or so.

      For now, I'll just keep blogging about it. But who knows?

  7. Great post, SP!

    I'm going to copy and paste here some of the comments that I offered in response to the friend who sent me the link to Andrew Sullivan's post on this topic, which ultimately brought me to your post.

    There is a lot of emerging scholarship on this topic at the moment. [But not much non-academic work about it yet that I am aware of, so I say go for the book idea now!] It is indeed fascinating [and important] stuff.

    The current trend is decidedly moving in the direction of much more egalitarian and bottom-up and/or partnership/collaborative types of [power] structures. Regrettably, it is nearly impossible to blend those new kinds of structures into those that are built around the more traditional models. Harder still is the task of getting even folks who intellectually embrace this trend and the concept that underlies it to really stop consistently knee-jerking back to the kinds of behaviors that continue to reinforce and institutionalize at least some characteristics of the old model. And, of course, that task is virtually impossible to achieve with folks who want to stay married to that old model.

    It is an evolutionary process, to be sure. But I think that process has finally begun to get enough traction and momentum to now begin to really bring actual change toward this hopefully inevitable end.


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