The President of the United States, as he approaches his first anniversary in office, is facing what has not been unusual for any of his predecessors: calls for a member of his cabinet to go and for legitimate reasons. Unemployment is high and government is displaying the tendentiousness to expand, both reactively and due to partisanship. The rhetoric thus far has only been to prepare the United States for a prolonged and gradual recovery.
American presidents, being also commanders-in-chief, like good leaders should, have always stood behind their lieutenants if their peccadilloes were in part due to White House before conceding a cabinet reshuffle or change, especially if doing so is more important to salvage the politics through better policies. The lieutenants sometimes had to be sacrificed for the commander’s misdirection. Such is the nature of politics and President Obama is not facing anything fundamentally different. It comes with the territory.
Presidents are difficult people to change. They get elected because they have managed to convince the majority of the country of their views of how it should be and are therefore always subject to the view of themselves that they cannot be wrong. This perception often arises because presidents confuse the desired outcomes with the policies to get there. There are always more ways than one to achieve a vision. Sound strategic leadership is always characterized by the flexibility to change ways when necessary. Change is a tactic, not an ideology because the purpose of all change is to not lose sight of the desired outcomes. Change is not an end in itself. It takes more effort to preserve a desired outcome, once achieved, than it does to achieve it, making change a never ending process. Safeguarding the status quo is an illusion of perception, as a matter of physics, let alone politics.
The political process of convincing the people, however prolonged an election campaign may be, lacks the nuance of the reality of execution. It is for execution that presidents are elected and this president, in particular, given his relative inexperience in political office before being elected to the White House, carries the burden of proof that he can get it right. People, in elections, relate to simplified presentations of complex issues and their solutions: the essence of what ought to be done. Extraordinary communicators, among whom the current president is one, excel at doing so during elections. But the actual process of formulating and executing solutions in detail is not as simple. The essence needs to be unfolded into a full process of change.
Yes, it is true that the period since the early ‘80s has yielded both good times and bad and in large part due to excesses. Yes, it is also true that the United States must return to a sense of balance in how it sees itself within its own borders and in the context of the rest of the world, so that it is beneficial to both Americans and foreigners. The current crisis is the result of the imbalances that have accumulated because of the excesses over more than two decades. And it is not the job of the government to partake in the manic depressive behaviors of the markets. Its job is to keep it steady and doing so takes level-headed leadership.
The resolution, however, to moor the ship that could run aground is not a bigger anchor of more government. It is but one approach to solving the problem to achieve the outcome of a more equitable society. If the vision of this president, as he himself had stated several times, is to get to a more equitable America, making the existing government (measured as the budget constraint of 2010 dollars through 2020) better is the better way to go than prematurely biting more than what the government can chew by trying to enlarge first with implicit promises to improve its quality later.
The government has no leg to stand on to make the case for its expansion if it cannot demonstrate that it can do what it currently does better, should government expansion become necessary for reasons that cannot be foreseen at this time. Further, government expansion should not be an ideological choice, but a rational policy choice, just as tearing down government should also not be predicated on the assumption that the country can run by itself. Perpetual motion machines, either made of all government or all markets, are works of engineering fiction and fantasy. It takes effort to keep moving the proper way because frictions are the reality of life. It takes effort to deliver on the social contract while minimizing social frictions.
Unless balance is achieved in the processes of democratic political engagement, balance cannot be achieved in the society. The recoil for “government is the problem” ideology should not be “government is good ideology.” Government can be good where it is needed and a problem where it is unnecessary. It is not needed in the auto industry. It is not needed in the financial markets. The government does not know how to grow food, make cars or issue stocks or build homes or treat sick people. The purpose of the government is to regulate. It is to make the law to ensure equity and execute that law equally to maximize the social benefit. Its job is to provide what the people cannot, and in some cases should not, provide for themselves: national defense and foreign affairs. The raison d’etre of the Department of the Treasury is to pay for what the government must do, not for what it should own: provide a safe and secure country for the people, represent them abroad, regulate the economy in a manner that ensures fairness in the society and be there for those who cannot help themselves (a robust and efficient social safety net).
Thus far, this administration has signaled to Americans that it would rather own what they do to deliver the desired outcome of a more equitable society than act, as a law making government should, to intermediate for fairness. Its actions have confirmed some of the intents and purposes behind the signals. And the country is genuinely worried in large measure because the very mechanisms of pervasive access to information, which were not as widespread before Wilson or FDR, have also catapulted this president to power. It was far easier for Wilson and FDR to perhaps engineer the country’s move to the left than it will be for this president to repeat it nearly a century later. In today’s America, ideology is subject to scrutiny far more than it has ever been and this is good for the health of the democracy.
President Obama must learn how to sort through the views of his constituents on matters of policy just as he had done on matters of politics before the election, especially if he is to approach them once again on matters of politics either at his own behest or of that of his party. Albeit the perhaps perceived reinforcement of his thinking by his meteoric success, both domestically and globally, which was in large measure an expectation of what he could deliver rather than a reward for what he has already done, a good beginning to do so is to take some responsibility as president for the dismal economic performance of his administration in the past year, even though he had not caused it, while looking forward to making government better by departing from the past that did. Without it, he would be politically incapacitated to deliver anything, even if his only aspiration is to preserve the status quo. Then, perhaps he will be able to work with the people and their representatives in Congress better and in the process save his faltering officials charged with the nation’s economic policy at the National Economic Council (NEC) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in the White House and at the Treasury who are carriers (similar to viral carriers of disease) of economic contagion of that legacy which tried to inoculate a privileged few around the world with money at the expense of the majority of people around the world and ultimately Americans.
Legacies are best defended by their own intrinsic worth when tested by time and besides, every president creates his or her own legacy. This president’s, as any president’s, is not only to ask himself (or herself), every morning before entering the Oval Office if he can be hypothetically reelected that day or next, but also if he can be 10 years down the road. If the answer is in the affirmative, he is doing most things well. Else, there should at least be some soul searching to do.