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Monday, April 21, 2014

David Brooks, "The Leadership Emotions": Obama, the Anti-Leader, Who Leads From Behind

In his latest New York Times op-ed entitled "The Leadership Emotions" (, David Brooks analyzes the battle between "amateur decision making," based upon "experience, intuition, affection, moral sentiments, imagination and genuineness," and "professional tactics and strategy," deriving from "public opinion analysis, message control, media management and self-conscious positioning." Examining how Obama only came around to backing gay marriage after Biden inadvertently took the lead, Brooks concludes:

"In every White House, and in many private offices, there seems to be a tug of war between those who want to express this messy amateur humanism and those calculators who emphasize message discipline, preventing leaks and maximum control. In most of the offices, there’s a fear of natural messiness, a fear of uncertainty, a distrust of that which is not scientific. The calculators are given too much control.

The leadership emotions, which should propel things, get amputated. The shrewd tacticians end up timidly and defensively running the expedition."

In every White House this "tug of war" exists? This is probably true, but there have been few, if any, administrations whose decision-making has been more attuned to catering to majority sentiments than that of Barack Obama. This, in turn, has given rise to a peculiarity: Notwithstanding the fact that Obama's foreign policy has provided a majority of Americans with exactly what they seemed to want, the president's foreign policy is also held in contempt by a majority of Americans. As observed by Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in a Washington Post opinion piece entitled "President Obama’s foreign policy paradox" (

"Whether one likes President Obama’s conduct of foreign policy or not, the common assumption is that the administration is at least giving the American people the foreign policy they want. The majority of Americans have opposed any meaningful U.S. role in Syria, have wanted to lessen U.S. involvement in the Middle East generally, are eager to see the 'tide of war' recede and would like to focus on 'nation-building at home.' Until now, the president generally has catered to and encouraged this public mood, so one presumes that he has succeeded, if nothing else, in gaining the public’s approval.

Yet, surprisingly, he hasn’t. The president’s approval ratings on foreign policy are dismal. According to the most recent CBS News poll, only 36 percent of Americans approve of the job Obama is doing on foreign policy, while 49 percent disapprove.

. . . .

Presidents are not always rewarded for doing what the public says it wants. Sometimes they are rewarded for doing just the opposite. Bill Clinton enjoyed higher approval ratings after intervening in Bosnia and Kosovo, even though majorities of Americans had opposed both interventions before he launched them."

Bill Clinton taking the lead in Bosnia and Kosovo? How about Franklin Roosevelt assisting the UK against the Nazis even prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, notwithstanding strong American isolationist sentiments?

Yesterday, Fred Hiatt, Editorial Page Editor of The Washington Post, took the position that Obama's dependence upon public polling has also determined his domestic policy. Hiatt observed how the president "cold-shouldered the bipartisan [Simpson-Bowles commission] he had appointed to right the nation’s finances for the long term" (

But back to the Brooks op-ed: Is David correct in labeling presidential decision-making based upon "experience, intuition, affection, moral sentiments, imagination and genuineness" as "amateur"? Doesn't leadership entail the occasional willingness to buck majority sentiment and steer the public onto the moral high-road?

However, with only two and a half years left to his presidency, don't be expecting a teleprompter-reading president, who promised "Change," to change course. Obama is destined to be remembered as the "anti-leader" who led from behind.

Moreover, unless he is soon able to change course, he will leave the Oval Office with a stagnant economy, an unwieldy national debt, and a foreign policy most kindly described as wishy-washy.

It remains to be seen how Hillary will seek to distance herself from this "legacy."

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