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“Leadership And The Politics Of Fear”: Obama Providing Exactly The Kind Of Leadership This Country Needs Right Now

Jeff Greenfield’s article titled: Getting the Politics of Fear Right got me thinking about what leadership means at a time like this. He acknowledges that following the Paris attacks, Donald Trump “went on a fear-mongering bender.” But then he finds President Obama’s response to be problematic as well.

Meanwhile President Obama has tacked sharply in the other direction, playing down the public’s anxiety, defiantly continuing to downgrade the possibility of an attack on the U.S. and the capabilities of Islamic State…Obama’s dismissiveness is no doubt one reason for Trump’s popularity; clearly many voters believe our current crop of leaders – starting with the president – have been too inattentive to their fears.

This is not an uncommon critique of President Obama. Way back in 2010 during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Maureen Dowd led a chorus of people complaining about the fact that the President didn’t seem to feel our panic.

President Spock’s behavior is illogical.

Once more, he has willfully and inexplicably resisted fulfilling a signal part of his job: being a prism in moments of fear and pride, reflecting what Americans feel so they know he gets it.

So this is nothing new. We heard the same thing during the Ebola scare and every other crises we’ve faced over the last 7 years. It all makes me think about what it is we want in a leader.

I was reminded of a powerful diary written years ago by a blogger named Hamden Rice about the leadership of Martin Luther King. The parallels with our current situation eventually break down, but Rice pointed out that King emerged to lead African Americans during a time that they were experiencing the terrorism of Jim Crow.

But this is what the great Dr. Martin Luther King accomplished. Not that he marched, nor that he gave speeches.

He ended the terror of living as a black person, especially in the south…

It wasn’t that black people had to use a separate drinking fountain or couldn’t sit at lunch counters, or had to sit in the back of the bus…

It was that white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them. You all know about lynching. But you may forget or not know that white people also randomly beat black people, and the black people could not fight back, for fear of even worse punishment.

This constant low level dread of atavistic violence is what kept the system running. It made life miserable, stressful and terrifying for black people.

And what was King’s response to that terror?

They told us: Whatever you are most afraid of doing vis-a-vis white people, go do it. Go ahead down to city hall and try to register to vote, even if they say no, even if they take your name down.

Go ahead sit at that lunch counter. Sue the local school board. All things that most black people would have said back then, without exaggeration, were stark raving insane and would get you killed.

If we do it all together, we’ll be okay.

One has to wonder if folks like Greenfield and Dowd had been around back then, would they have complained that MLK was too inattentive to their fears?

When it comes to the current threat of terrorism, President Obama plays a very different role in this country than the one Dr. Martin Luther King did all those decades ago. But interestingly enough, yesterday his message sounded pretty similar.

What happened in Paris is truly horrific. I understand that people worry that something similar could happen here. I want you to know that we will continue to do everything in our power to defend our nation…

But it’s not just our security professionals who will defeat ISIL and other terrorist groups. As Americans, we all have a role to play in how we respond to threats. Groups like ISIL cannot defeat us on the battlefield, so they try to terrorize us at home – against soft targets, against civilians, against innocent people. Even as we’re vigilant, we cannot, and we will not, succumb to fear. Nor can we allow fear to divide us – for that’s how terrorists win. We cannot give them the victory of changing how we go about living our lives.

That is exactly the kind of leadership this country needs right now to combat the politics of fear.


By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, November 25, 2015

November 26, 2015 Posted by | Fearmongering, Republicans, Terrorism | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“A Community Organizing Virtuoso”: President Obama Is Well-Versed In The “Dance” Between Activists And Politicians

Years ago I was a program manager at a nonprofit organization and decided to apply to be the executive director of the same agency. The board of directors asked staff to review resumes and interview finalists for the job (including me).

The staff I supervised at the time objected to the fact that I included on my resume the accomplishments of the program I managed. Their response was that they had been the ones that did the work and I was taking credit for their efforts.

In a way, they had a point. But they also didn’t understand leadership. As coach of the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi never scored a touchdown and never kicked a field goal. And yet he is credited with the success of that football team throughout most of the 1960’s.

In the end, I decided to take the staff objections as a compliment. That’s because I value the kind of leadership that facilitates the feeling of ownership by employees for their accomplishments. It’s the kind that Marshall Ganz described this way:

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.

Over the course of Obama’s presidency, we’ve often heard that he doesn’t do enough to tout his own record and when someone else does, activists jump in and take credit for pushing him to do something. Most recently that happened with his executive orders on immigration. Activists who had interrupted his speeches and called him the “Deporter-in-Cheif” took credit. The same thing happened when DADT was finally overturned a few years ago.

While Obama’s supporters often complain about that, I’m not sure the President would mind. As a former community organizer, he is well-versed in the “dance” between activists and politicians. And I believe that his goal as President has always been to lead in the same way he did back in those early days in Chicago. Here’s how James Kloppenberg described him in Reading Obama.

How did Obama, lacking any experience as an organizer, learn the ropes so fast? In Galuzzo’s words, “nobody teaches a jazz musician jazz. This man is gifted.”

Kruglik explains Obama’s genius by describing two approaches community organizers often use. Trying to mobilize a group of fifty people, a novice will elicit responses from a handful, then immediately transform their stray comments into his or her own statement of priorities and strategies. The group responds, not surprisingly, by rejecting the organizer’s recommendations. By contrast, a master takes the time to listen to many comments, rephrases questions, and waits until the individuals in the group begin to see for themselves what they have in common. A skilled organizer then patiently allows the animating principles and the plan of action to emerge from the group itself. That strategy obviously takes more time. It also takes more intelligence, both analytical and emotional. Groups can tell when they are being manipulated, and they know when they are being heard. According to Kruglik, Obama showed an exceptional willingness to listen to what people were saying. He did not rush from their concerns to his. He did not shift the focus from one issue to another until they were ready. He did not close off discussions about strategy, which were left open for reconsideration pending results. Obama managed to coax from groups a sense of what they shared, an awareness that proved sturdy because it was their doing, not his. From those shared concerns he was able to inspire a commitment to action. In the time it takes most trainees to learn the basics, Obama showed a virtuosos’s ability to improvise. As Galuzzo put it, he was gifted.

And here is how Barack Obama described it himself back in 1988.

In return, organizing teaches as nothing else does the beauty and strength of everyday people. Through the songs of the church and the talk on the stoops, through the hundreds of individual stories of coming up from the South and finding any job that would pay, of raising families on threadbare budgets, of losing some children to drugs and watching others earn degrees and land jobs their parents could never aspire to — it is through these stories and songs of dashed hopes and powers of endurance, of ugliness and strife, subtlety and laughter, that organizers can shape a sense of community not only for others, but for themselves.

(If you’ve ever wondered whether Obama had/has potential as a gifted writer…there’s your answer!)

There is both a quantitative and qualitative difference between organizing fifty people on the South Side of Chicago and leading the entire country. That is why Michelle Obama described her husband’s foray into politics like this:

Barack is not a politician first and foremost. He’s a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.

And so I suspect that when citizens take credit for the changes they’ve worked to make happen, the community activist in him counts that as a success. Pundits who are attuned to the polarization in our politics have a point about whether or not that is a reasonable approach to take these days. But when our founders talked about “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” it’s exactly what they had in mind.


By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, August 1, 2015

August 2, 2015 Posted by | Community Organizers, Politicians, President Obama | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“On Leadership”: Does President Obama’s Actions Only Count As Leadership If He’s Taking Steps Republicans Like?

By all appearances, President Obama would welcome the chance to work with lawmakers on a solution to combat the climate crisis. But in 2010, a cap-and-trade bill couldn’t overcome a Republican filibuster in the Senate, and the legislative prospects effectively collapsed after the GOP claimed a House majority in 2011.

There are, however, some steps the president can take on his own, and it appears Obama is increasingly prepared to do just that.

On the heels of the Senate’s passage of a long-awaited farm bill, the Obama administration is to announce on Wednesday the creation of seven regional “climate hubs” aimed at helping farmers and rural communities respond to the risks of climate change, including drought, invasive pests, fires and floods.

White House officials describe the move as one of several executive actions that President Obama will take on climate change without action from Congress.

In substance, the creation of the climate hubs is a limited step, but it is part of a broader campaign by the administration to advance climate policy wherever possible with executive authority. The action is also part of a push to build political support for the administration’s more divisive moves on climate change – in particular, the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations on coal-fired power plants.

This move follows a more expansive climate policy Obama unveiled last June, relying almost exclusively on executive authority already acknowledged by the Supreme Court.

To be sure, these “climate hubs” are a fairly modest policy, intended to help a limited number of farmers adapt to changing conditions. But in the bigger picture, it’s also evidence of a sixth-year president eager to do something fairly specific with his power: lead.

And the more I think about it, the more common this seems to be.

There are a notable group of pundits who have spent much of Obama’s presidency demanding that he “lead more.” It’s never been entirely clear what, specifically, these pundits expect the president to do, especially in the face of unyielding and reflexive opposition from Congress, but the complaints seemed rooted in misplaced expectations and confusion over institutional limits.

As the argument goes, if only the president were willing to lead – louder, harder, and bigger – he could somehow advance his agenda through sheer force of will, institutional constraints be damned. And if Congress resists, it’s necessarily evidence that Obama is leading poorly – after all, if only he were a more leading leader, Congress would, you know, follow his lead. The line of criticism became so tiresome and so common that Greg Sargent began mocking it with a convenient label: the Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power.

What’s I’m curious about now, however, is whether those same pundits are willing to concede that in the West Wing, there’s been all kinds of leading going on lately.

When Republicans threatened to hold the debt ceiling hostage last fall, promising to crash the economy on purpose unless Democrats met their demands, Obama drew a line in the sand – there would be no negotiations over the full faith and credit of the United States – and the GOP backed down. In the process, a new precedent was set, thanks to the president’s willingness to lead.

When a bill to impose new Iranian sanctions threatened to sabotage international nuclear diplomacy, Obama stepped up, applied pressure, worked the phones, arranged meetings, and convinced senators to hold off and give the ongoing talks a chance. The president’s leadership turned a bill that appeared ready to pass and stopped it in its tracks.

When congressional Republicans balked at a minimum-wage increase, Obama used the powers available to him to give thousands of government contractors a raise. The GOP remains outraged, but the president showed leadership and ignored the complaints. Obama now appears ready to take similar executive action on addressing climate change.

So here’s the question for the “lead more” pundits: doesn’t this count as presidential leadership, too? Or do Obama’s actions only count as leadership if he’s taking steps Republicans like?


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, February 5, 2014

February 6, 2014 Posted by | Climate Change, Executive Orders | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Leadership: A Quality That Continues To Elude Republicans

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) delivered a closely-watched speech the other day, in which he went after President Obama over, among other things, the issue of leadership. “We continue wait and hope that our president will finally stop being a bystander in the Oval Office,” the governor said. “We hope that he will shake off the paralysis that has made it impossible for him to take on the really big things.”

The next day, I received a few emails from liberal friends, all of whom are Obama detractors from the left, who seemed giddy but bemused by the fusion of Republican talking points and liberal complaints. They don’t love Christie, but they seemed to love the rhetorical shots Christie was taking at the president.

I find much of this pretty bizarre, not just because dyed-in-the-wool lefties are applauding cheap GOP talking points, but primarily because the argument itself is so weak. John Dickerson had a good piece yesterday on the nature of presidential leadership.

What the president’s critics really mean when they say the president “isn’t leading” is that he hasn’t announced that he is supporting their plans, or that he hasn’t decided to commit public suicide by announcing a position for which they can then denounce him.

By any measure, Obama is a leader. The first stimulus plan, health care reform, and financial regulatory reform he pushed for are all significant pieces of legislation. Christie’s measurement of leadership is doing “big things” even if they are unpopular. Health care, as Republicans will tell you, represents about one-fifth of the economy. Obama certainly wasn’t facing the prospect of popularity when he pushed for changing it.

I remember taking a class on leadership and being surprised, as a naive grad student, how complicated it was. Leadership at a conceptual level seems straightforward and obvious — a person steps up, presents a vision, and encourages others to follow him or her. There is, however, far more to it than that, and there are even different models of leadership (transactional vs. transformational, for example).

But for the purposes of conversation, the notion that Barack Obama is a “bystander,” too overcome by “paralysis” to do “big things,” isn’t just wrong, it’s ridiculous. Indeed, as far as the right is concerned, the attack is itself in conflict with the conservative notion that Obama is destroying American civilization with his radical agenda. One can be a bystander and one can be a radical activist hell bent on gutting our cherished traditions from within — but one cannot be both.

Contradictions aside, what are we to use as a metric for evaluating a president as a leader? If the metric has to do with making controversial decisions to advance the greater good, Obama has clearly done this repeatedly, including his unpopular-but-successful rescue of the American auto industry. If the metric relates to accomplishments, Obama’s record is lengthy (health care, Wall Street reform, Recovery Act, DADT repeal, student loan reform, New START, etc.). If the metric has to do with making tough calls when combating enemies, Obama’s role in killing Osama bin Laden would appear to meet that standard, too.

Has Obama compromised? Sure, but so has every other successful president. Has he fallen short on several goals? Of course, but he’s leading at time of nearly impossible circumstances, after inheriting a Republican mess of unimaginable proportions, and his tenure hasn’t even lasted three years. Is Obama struggling to get things done with this tragically dysfunctional Congress? Obviously, but there’s no point in blaming the president for the structural impediments of the American system of government. As Dickerson explained, “Calling for leadership is a trick both parties use to arouse anger and keep us from thinking too much more about the underlying issue. If only we had a leader, everything would be solved, they’d like us to think. But we should think more about what it actually takes to be president — what kind of leadership works and what kind of leadership doesn’t.”

Ultimately, the president’s critics are raising the wrong complaint. For the right, the criticism should be that Obama may be an effective leader, but he’s effectively leading the nation in a liberal direction they disapprove of. For the left, the criticism should be that Obama isn’t leading the nation to the left quickly or aggressively enough.

But to characterize him as a passive bystander is absurd.

By: Steve Benen, Washington Monthly Political Animal, September 29, 2011

September 30, 2011 Posted by | Conservatives, Democracy, Democrats, Elections, GOP, Government, Health Reform, Ideologues, Teaparty | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Why The Tea Party Should Stop Fearing Compromise

Among tea party voters, there is a belief that the right is always getting sold out  by the political establishment. In their telling, Reagan-era conservatives agreed to an amnesty for illegal immigrants on the condition that the law  would be enforced going forward, then deeply regretted having done so.  George H.W. Bush broke his “no new taxes” pledge. The  Contract with America failed to deliver on many of its promises. George  W. Bush joined forces with Ted Kennedy on No Child Left Behind, changed  positions on campaign finance reform, and closed out his presidency by  bailing out undeserving Wall Street firms. In all this, he was abetted  by GOP legislators.

These tea party voters  are sometimes justified in feeling betrayed. Other times, they misinterpret what happened. Right or wrong, however, they’re powerfully averse to compromise. Mere mention of the word aggrieves them. They  don’t think of it as a means of bringing about a mutually beneficial  change in the status quo, where one of their priorities is addressed in return for giving up something on an issue they care less about. When  they hear the word compromise, the knee-jerk reaction is to oppose it.  In their experience, going along with compromise is tantamount to  getting screwed. The insistence that pols “stand on principle” is a  defense mechanism.

This attitude helps explain why tea partiers  are so frequently attracted to relatively inexperienced politicians like Sarah Palin, Marco Rubio, and Michele Bachmann. More experienced pols  have been forced to compromise as the price of achieving something, just as a President Palin, Rubio or Bachmann would be forced to compromise  in order to pass the parts of their agenda most important to them. Having  gotten so little of substance done in their careers, however, they haven’t yet had to give up anything significant, so they can maintain the fiction that they never would. As Daniel Larison puts it, “Bachmann’s lack of  achievements is in some ways a blessing for her, because it is proof  that she has never compromised. In today’s GOP, that is very valuable,  and she doesn’t have many competitors in the race who can say the same.”

The tea party movement should know better. The Founding Fathers engaged in an endless series of compromises. Abraham Lincoln  compromised. Franklin D. Roosevelt compromised. So did Ronald Reagan. Every consequential leader in the history of the United  States has had to compromise.

It defies common sense to think the next  Republican president will be different. So why are tea party voters asking  themselves, “Which of these presidential candidates is least  likely to compromise?” They ought to be pondering different questions, such as: “What  style of negotiation and compromise does this candidate employ? How much have they  gotten in the past for what they gave up?”

“Do the issues they’ve treated as most important align with my priorities?”

Viewed in  that light, Mitch Daniels’ talk of a truce on social issues in order to  focus on the budget deficit should’ve appealed to a large faction of tea partiers. He laid out his  priorities. They aligned perfectly with tea party rhetoric: it is a movement focused on economic issues and individual liberty far more than social conservatism if you trust what its typical adherents themselves assert. But even tea partiers who  shared Daniels’ priorities didn’t like that he talked of compromise.

They got self-righteous about it.

Tea partiers would be better off accepting that every politician cares about some things  more than others, that there is no such thing as successfully governing America as an uncompromising social, economic and national security conservative, and that pretending otherwise results in choosing candidates who are  marginally less likely to choose the best compromises.

Another way to put this is that if tea party voters were  less naive about the centrality of compromise to politics — and more  willing to believe that a principled person can compromise — they’d  feel  less victimized by an unchangeable fact of democracy. They’d also be  more frequently empowered to bring about  policy outcomes that better align with what they care about most.


By: Conor Friedersdorf, Associate Editor, The Atlantic, July 15, 2011

July 16, 2011 Posted by | Budget, Congress, Conservatives, Debt Ceiling, Deficits, Democracy, Economic Recovery, Economy, Elections, GOP, Government, Government Shut Down, Ideologues, Ideology, Iowa Caucuses, Liberty, Politics, Republicans, Right Wing, Taxes, Teaparty, Voters | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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