Obama is ducking a leader's duty
Although most Americans oppose the GOP's shutdown strategy, for the good of the nation President Obama needs to show a leader's courage and take ideas from his opposition.

Reuters

US President Barack Obama delivers remarks on the government funding impasse at M. Luis Construction, a local small business in Rockville, Maryland, near Washington, October 3, 2013.

  • Title:

    The Road to Freedom
  • Format:

    HardCover
  • Hardcover Price:

    25.99
  • Hardcover ISBN:

    978-0465029402
  • Buy the Book

Article Highlights

  • A vast scholarly literature spanning more than six decades exists on the subject of leadership.

    Tweet This

  • As Winston Churchill put it, "The price of greatness is responsibility."

    Tweet This

  • Obama's image as a strong leader has dropped like a stone since 2009.

    Tweet This

  • By Jan. 2010, just 66% in a Quinnipiac poll said the president had "strong leadership qualities."

    Tweet This

  • There is plenty of time for the president to take responsibility and rectify his perceived leadership deficit.

    Tweet This

  • Great leaders negotiate and own the consequences.

    Tweet This

A vast scholarly literature spanning more than six decades exists on the subject of leadership. The characteristics of effective leaders have been pored over, cataloged and debated. Among them, one trait stands out as axiomatic: Effective leaders take responsibility for problems around them; they do not shift blame to others. As Winston Churchill put it, "The price of greatness is responsibility."

Indeed, studies show that taking responsibility is one of the key traits people expect from a leader. In one 2006 study, two researchers at the University of Kent in England conducted a laboratory experiment in which human subjects in a group were given money and a choice: They could either keep it all or contribute some portion to a "group fund" that would be doubled and divided equally between all participants. Some people cooperated for the good of all, while others did not.

In a second phase of the experiment, the participants were asked who would be the best leader for the group. Eighty percent of the time, they chose the person who had contributed the most to the fund in the first phase. When people can choose the people who will lead them, they prefer people who proactively take responsibility for group welfare.

This brings us to the current debate over the shutdown of the federal government. The conventional narrative is that conservative policymakers are holding the nation hostage and hamstringing the helpless president.

Americans will likely see through this. A majority dislikes the current Republican strategy, but they know that ultimate culpability lies with leadership at the top. This sorry episode will reinforce the growing perception of the president as a leader who is more comfortable denouncing subordinates for disagreement than in taking responsibility.

Obama's image as a strong leader has dropped like a stone since 2009. A month after his first inauguration, a CBS News/New York Times poll found 85% of Americans said the president had "strong qualities of leadership."

By January 2010, just 66% in a Quinnipiac poll said the president had "strong leadership qualities." In the very same poll Tuesday, only 53% gave this response. A few weeks earlier, a Fox News poll about foreign policy found that only 42% of Americans say Obama is "a strong and decisive leader."

Some of this no doubt reflects the bitter partisanship of our times. But some of it is also logically due to a growing sense that the president is unwilling or unable to take responsibility in difficult circumstances and blames others instead. Indeed, half of Americans currently say he "spend[s] too much time blaming others," according to the Fox News poll cited above.

Is this assessment fair? Sample his public pronouncements and judge for yourself. Just this week, he washed his hands of the government shutdown by asserting that Republicans alone are "shutting down the government over an ideological crusade."

Or consider the recent Syria debacle. Initially, the president declared a "red line" if President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons in that nation's civil war. But when the Syrian leader was shown to have done so, Obama failed to act, and declared, "I didn't set a red line, the world set a red line. My credibility is not on the line." The president shouldn't have been surprised when 54% of Americans said they believed he was "ducking responsibility for his earlier statement."

There is plenty of time for the president to take responsibility and rectify his perceived leadership deficit. It is true that he does not have a rubber stamp; the House of Representatives is certainly opposed to many of his initiatives. But that makes leadership at the top all the more important. Great leaders negotiate and own the consequences.

The Republicans represent a mainstream position that many Americans support, not an extremist fringe that a decent leader would vilify. In the budget and debt-limit fights of the coming weeks, Obama can show a leader's courage to take ideas from the opposition — such as delaying implementation of the Affordable Care Act — and forge agreement with enough Republicans to produce a deal.

There is a lesson here for Republicans as well. Virtually every poll finds little public confidence in the GOP and even lower favorability toward Republicans in Congress than for Democrats. This is hardly a recipe for political resurgence. A strategy of fighting against things — instead of fighting for people — and simply blaming Obama for the current stalemate would lead the GOP into the same trap into which the president has fallen.

Ultimately, though, responsibility falls to the boss. So what is the likelihood Obama will step up at this crucial moment as a responsible chief executive? We probably got the answer from his senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer, who told CNN on Sept. 26 that "we're not for … negotiating with people with a bomb strapped to their chest." Sadly, he was talking about his Republican colleagues, not the actual terrorists who aim to kill us.

Arthur C. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI.) He is also the Beth and Ravenel Curry Scholar in Free Enterprise at AEI.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author

 

Arthur C.
Brooks
  • Arthur C. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). He is also the Beth and Ravenel Curry Scholar in Free Enterprise at AEI.

    Immediately before joining AEI, Brooks was the Louis A. Bantle Professor of Business and Government at Syracuse University, where he taught economics and social entrepreneurship.

    Brooks is the author of 10 books and hundreds of articles on topics including the role of government, fairness, economic opportunity, happiness, and the morality of free enterprise. His latest book, “The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise” (2012) was a New York Times bestseller. Among his earlier books are “Gross National Happiness” (2008), “Social Entrepreneurship” (2008), and “Who Really Cares” (2006). Before pursuing his work in public policy, Brooks spent 12 years as a classical musician in the United States and Spain.

    Brooks is a frequent guest on national television and radio talk shows and has been published widely in publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

    Brooks has a Ph.D. and an M.Phil. in policy analysis from RAND Graduate School. He also holds an M.A. in economics from Florida Atlantic University and a B.A. in economics from Thomas Edison State College.


    Follow Arthur Brooks on Twitter.

  • Assistant Info

    Name: Danielle Duncan
    Phone: 202.419.5213
    Email: danielle.duncan@aei.org

What's new on AEI

image The Census Bureau and Obamacare: Dumb decision? Yes. Conspiracy? No.
image A 'three-state solution' for Middle East peace
image Give the CBO long-range tools
image The coming collapse of India's communists
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 21
    MON
  • 22
    TUE
  • 23
    WED
  • 24
    THU
  • 25
    FRI
Wednesday, April 23, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Graduation day: How dads’ involvement impacts higher education success

Join a diverse group of panelists — including sociologists, education experts, and students — for a discussion of how public policy and culture can help families lay a firmer foundation for their children’s educational success, and of how the effects of paternal involvement vary by socioeconomic background.

Thursday, April 24, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Getting it right: A better strategy to defeat al Qaeda

This event will coincide with the release of a new report by AEI’s Mary Habeck, which analyzes why current national security policy is failing to stop the advancement of al Qaeda and its affiliates and what the US can do to develop a successful strategy to defeat this enemy.

Friday, April 25, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 1:15 p.m.
Obamacare’s rocky start and uncertain future

During this event, experts with many different views on the ACA will offer their predictions for the future.   

No events scheduled today.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.