President Obama and leadership

Like many of his supporters I am frustrated at times by what appears to be indecision on the President’s part.  You have to admit that he can take a long time to make a decision while speculation dominates the media and the blogs as to what he will do.  Look at the still to be announced appointment to be Chair of the Federal Reserve.  But when I get frustrated I tell myself that he is playing a long game.  Farah Stockman had an interesting op-ed in the Boston Globe today explaining better than I could the Obama style of leadership.

I am going to quote most of it because I can’t figure out where to cut it (and because one can’t read it from the link without a Globe subscription) and it isn’t that long..

Before we start hand-wringing over the gridlock in our domestic affairs, let’s savor the good news on the international front: Last week, after years of paralysis, the UN Security Council mandated the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria and endorsed a political transition plan that might finally sweep Syrian President Bashar Assad aside.

And after years of Iran’s refusal to talk seriously about its nuclear program, Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, announced that he wants to resolve the issue in 12 months. He and President Obama even spoke on the phone, the first such contact since the 1970s.

Of course, we’re still a long way from solving those two problems. But we’re on a far better path than we were three weeks ago. Back then, we were on the verge of launching a unilateral military strike that would have inflamed the situation in Syria and hurt our chances of getting a nuclear deal with Iran. So how did that no-win situation in Syria turn into something positive? And what does this bizarre chapter in US diplomacy tell us about the nature of leadership itself?

Recall that Obama announced that he had made a decision to strike. Then he asked Congress to give its blessing. Those moves allowed time for Americans to debate, with the whole world watching. Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus were forced to contemplate the possibility of a US strike. The uncertainty of what would happen next weighed on them more heavily than a knee-jerk cruise missile. In the end, the threat of US military action proved more powerful than the action itself. Our adversaries finally agreed to a diplomatic solution that they had refused in the past.

Of course, Obama got called a lot of names for the delay that made that outcome possible: “weakling,” “ditherer-in-chief,” and— nastiest of all, in some corners —  “community organizer.” I must admit that I thought he was crazy for going to Congress, which often seems more eager to tar and feather him than to approve of anything he wants.

But political theorist Dennis Thompson, co-author of the book “Why Deliberative Democracy?” says Obama’s moves mirrored a style of leadership Thompson taught at Harvard. Thompson believes that, in a true democracy, a leader ought to explain the reasoning behind the course of action he or she wants to take. But in the end, wherever possible, the group itself should debate it and have the final word.

It stands to reason that a country that believes in democracy should have faith that a decision debated openly by a group will usually produce a better outcome than a decision one man makes alone. So, why then were some Americans so infuriated that Obama took the issue to Congress?

“It is as if we expect decisions of war and peace to be made by the president rather than society as a whole,” said Archon Fung, another Harvard professor who has studied the virtues of “deliberative democracy.” “Decisions about when to use military force . . . involve killing as a state act. If any decision should be made democratically, it’s this one.”

Peter Levine, a professor at Tufts University, sees the public reaction as a sign of the times. Americans have grown less interested in the public deliberations that that make democracies work. Participation on juries and PTA meetings are at an all-time low, he said. Voters expect their elected leaders to solve their problems. Debates over the best way to go about it are seen as a sign of failure or weakness.

“Our system is supposed to be deliberative,” Levine said. “But we live in a profoundly anti-deliberative moment.”

So maybe this episode says as much about us as it does about our leader. We like John Wayne presidents, saviors who rescue us with their quick trigger fingers. We don’t like leaders who admit uncertainty, who ask us to help choose between imperfect options. But, at the end of the day, the Syria debate taught us that when Americans deliberate as a people, we can come up with a better outcome. It’s a lesson we shouldn’t forget.

President Obama is certainly not John Wayne, but he is the leader of a democracy.  We need to remember this when we get frustrated.

Confirming Chuck Hagel

Republican Chuck Hagel, a former two-term senator from Nebraska and President Obama's choice to lead the Pentagon, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013

Republican Chuck Hagel, a former two-term senator from Nebraska and President Obama’s choice to lead the Pentagon, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013

Let’s just get this out of the way:  Former Senator Chuck Hagel is not perfect.  There are things that the Democrats don’t like (he may cut some of their pork, for one) and that the Republicans don’t like (he doesn’t seem to like war for example).  Hey, when both sides have some problems with you, maybe that does make you perfect!

I do think that Hagel will be confirmed at Secretary of Defense, but the vote will likely be close.  I like the nomination for exactly the examples I gave.  Hagel will have to cut the defense budget one way or another, he will have to deal with contractor abuses, and he will be very reluctant to get us into war.  And maybe he will begin a conversation within the administration about rules for drone strikes.  It seems to me that it will be useful to have to combat veterans, Kerry and Hagel, looking at issues of war and peace.

George Zornick has been followed the confirmation hearing for the Nation and has compiled his top ten ridiculous questions that were asked.  Here are some of the best.

He has divisions so first the “Please Admit You Hate America” Division

Senator James Inhofe, R-OK: The question I’d like to ask you, and you can answer for the record if you like, why do you think that the Iranian foreign ministry so strongly supports your nomination to be the secretary of defense?

“Please Pledge, Here and Now, To Start A War” Division

Senator John McCain, R-AZ: Do you think that Syrians should get the weapons they need and perhaps establish a no-fly zone? [A no-fly zone would, almost without question, quickly lead to a full-scale air war with Syria.]

It should be noted that almost everyone seemed to want to know if he would use force if necessary against Iran.

“Please Promise to Keep the Pork Flowing to my State” Division (the winners were all Democrats, two from New England, I picked Jeanne Shaheen for some gender balance.)

Senator Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH: Our four public shipyards are the backbone of our naval power. But according to the Navy there’s huge backlog of the modernization and restorations projects at our shipyards.… Will you commit to ensuring that this modernization plan is produced, and will you commit to pressing the Navy, within the fiscal constraints that I appreciate, to fully fund the improvements in the long term?

And finally we have questions that were ridiculous but “We Really Wish Hagel Would Have Answered ‘Yes’ To “Division

Senator Ted Cruz, R-TX: Senator Hagel, do you think it’s appropriate for the chief civilian leader for the US military forces to agree with the statement that both the ‘perception and the reality’ is that the United States is ‘the world’s bully’?”

All I can say is good luck Secretary Hagel.  We wish you well.

Photograph: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite