If Obama gets a second term today, one of his biggest tasks will be showing strong leadership.
A re-elected President Obama faces difficult choices, as every commentator will say tiresomely and ad nauseam. But more importantly, he also has a huge and unique opportunity. The media will inevitably begin to write its ritual story regarding who would want to be president, how daunting the problems are, and on and on. Don’t take this seriously; certainly the media doesn’t. It’s just one of those stories the formula requires them to write. In fact, my guess is that both President Obama and Governor Romney saw somewhat similar versions of the opportunity and badly wanted to be the president who seized it.
There are two parts to the opportunity. First, a reelected President Obama has by my figuring the first mostly clear, uncluttered second term since Ronald Reagan. And second, America is slowly, but with increasing strength, emerging from the Great Recession. Our economy is the best positioned in the developed world. We have a new growth model available to us, if we will reach for it. And the political stars could be aligned.
But we will need the element I haven’t mentioned yet: the political leadership to see the opportunity and do something about it. Neither campaign has shown much if any evidence that this leadership is likely to be forthcoming. If he were elected, Governor Romney would take a long time to extract himself from the commitments he made to his party’s far right. He certainly took every chance to re-reverse himself in the last few weeks of the campaign, and the Etch-a-Sketch would be furiously at work, but it would take two years to get himself in a position to lead anywhere.
President Obama has all of the right personality traits and at times he has shown real flashes, but he hasn’t been the leader he should be, and he often hasn’t shown the steel leadership requires. If he has a second term, what does he have to know and what does he have to do?
He has to know himself and he has to reflect deeply on what he now knows about the presidency. He came into office unprepared for hard-edged executive leadership and it showed. His training wasn’t the best possible. While I’m reasonably convinced that the worse possible prep for the presidency is running a buy-out firm, I wouldn’t argue that being a constitutional law professor at an elite university and augmenting that with four years in the U.S. Senate is great background either. In a debate, I’d take the “pro” side that it is anti-training. So President Obama had to surmount his wonderful resume. One hopes he has the humility to reflect in private on how tough the journey has been.
But what should he have learned and what should he now do? Here are five possible lessons and four possible actions.
First, the presidency is not a high intensity management job, but rather the highest intensity leadership job in the world. Everything in the White House has to be organized around presenting the right decisions and choices to the president, helping the president make decisions, and then getting things done in a divided political system, across an immense bureaucracy, for a continental nation.
I am not certain this describes the first-term White House, but I am certain the president should ask someone he trusts to take a very hard look at structure, processes, and people. The president has to be tough-minded about this. Second terms don’t last very long and he doesn’t have forever to start. (On a related topic, Erskine Bowles is famous for the following advice about staffing a White House: “Tell your friends from home to stay at home.”)
Second, focus, time, and energy are essential to get any message through to a big, busy, and polarized continental nation. A president simply cannot have a priority of the week or even four or five big priorities in a term. To get anything done he has to stay with a problem for years, and as much as elite professors may hate the idea, you actually have to market your policies. The White House basically forgot this for the whole middle two years of the first term.
Third, every choice presented to a president is a 49.99-50.01 choice, and events — as Harold MacMillan, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, famously said — always intervene, usually in the worst possible way. But maintaining any steadiness and consistency in the face of 1,000 necessary but unrelated decisions, during completely unpredictable events, is flat impossible without a direction, a priority, and a plan.
I think the direction has to be economic growth. The president has to tell the NEC at the White House to lay out a growth vision, and if it can’t, he ought to get another NEC.
And he has to sell whatever vision or priority he decides on. This means creating an actual plan, allocating his time, assigning big tasks to the Cabinet, and thinking ahead about this marketing effort. But all of this is what White Houses are supposed to do, what they have to be structured to do. In our system, the only real source of steady energy is the presidency.
Fourth, a president never has a stable coalition. He is in the negotiating business 24 hours a day. This means compromise isn’t inherently evil and achieving durable solutions requires steel, not bonhomie. I’d make two bets. First, after the election there will be actual pragmatists in the Republican Party who both want to accomplish something and, in any case, think that politically they have to accomplish something. Second, the American people are sick to death of the unending quarrels in Washington and are far more ready than the politicians or the ideologues on both ends of the spectrum for a set of pragmatic compromises and for courage. So the president has to ask himself what does he need to get things done and then figure out who will do it with him.
But to do this, a president has to believe that deals aren’t evil and, more significantly, that deals can lead — if you are smart — to better, more creative directions than anything you came up with on your own. Wyden-Bennett, which we didn’t pursue, was a better and genuinely bipartisan health reform approach.
On occasion, a president has to show the steel, the hammer that sometimes is all that can make hard deals happen. Doing this may involve taking major but calculated risks. White Houses — which are mostly royal courts — aren’t good at this. The courtiers are never going to tell the president something he doesn’t want to hear unless he makes clear he’ll listen.
And fifth, a president has to care and believe. In times of great change, presidents have to provide a bridge — they become the bridge — between an unsustainable present and an uncertain future. For Americans to cross that bridge, they have to believe that the president cares about them and believes deeply in the directions he is proposing. Cool, abstract, ironic detachment doesn’t work. Simplicity, consistency, showing up, working on the problem, being completely honest about difficulties do work. The president’s demeanor and style in the first debate will never work. But his approach to the second two debates was vastly better not just for the debates but as examples of presidential leadership. He was mostly calm, he showed flashes of real anger, and he was completely engaged. That president could convince the American people that he believed, cared, and had the courage to act.
A very long time ago, I found myself in a late-night conversation in Cronin’s bar in Cambridge, Mass. I was talking to a graduate student maybe 10 years older who had been wounded and highly decorated for leading his Marine rifle platoon out of the Pusan Reservoir disaster during the Korean War. I asked him how he could possibly have done it. And he said he didn’t do it, he faked it. He said he had been terrified and thought it was hopeless and his sergeant pulled him aside and said, “You are going to get us all killed. You don’t have to tell the men how to fight, they were trained and they know. You don’t have to decide on our tactics, that’s mostly my job. But you do have to f*****g lead us and you have to act like you know what you’re doing, even if you don’t. Because we need that and there’s no one else but you.”
Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic Presidents.