Why Obama needs to be like Ike

If you’re like many people in the White House, you cringe every time you hear the term "leading from behind." It’s become one of the slams du jour here in Washington. But, you have to admit, at least it implied there was some leading happening somewhere. Watching the clown college that is modern Washington during ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

If you're like many people in the White House, you cringe every time you hear the term "leading from behind." It's become one of the slams du jour here in Washington. But, you have to admit, at least it implied there was some leading happening somewhere.

Watching the clown college that is modern Washington during yesterday's speech scheduling follies, it is clear our glittering prizes are leading us nowhere fast. That's bad for the economy. Bad for the American people. Bad for the world. But having said that, given the visionless self-absorption these folks are currently displaying, I'm not sure we would want to follow even if they knew where to go.

The spat over scheduling the President's address next week was a combination of politics as usual, shoddy planning, pettiness and slapstick comedy. Frankly, I'm not sure Speaker Boehner did his party any favors by booting the President to next Thursday. If he had let him go as scheduled, the Republican debaters who would have followed him on the air could then have torn his speech apart before a national audience thereby upstaging him and giving their alternative views greater visibility at the same time. That said, isn't it time we had a moratorium on tearing ideas and opponents apart for a while. Isn't this one of those "we're all in this together moments?" Maybe we ought to just listen to each other for a while ... and if the pols don't come up with any good ideas, then maybe we should listen to see if someone else does.

If you’re like many people in the White House, you cringe every time you hear the term "leading from behind." It’s become one of the slams du jour here in Washington. But, you have to admit, at least it implied there was some leading happening somewhere.

Watching the clown college that is modern Washington during yesterday’s speech scheduling follies, it is clear our glittering prizes are leading us nowhere fast. That’s bad for the economy. Bad for the American people. Bad for the world. But having said that, given the visionless self-absorption these folks are currently displaying, I’m not sure we would want to follow even if they knew where to go.

The spat over scheduling the President’s address next week was a combination of politics as usual, shoddy planning, pettiness and slapstick comedy. Frankly, I’m not sure Speaker Boehner did his party any favors by booting the President to next Thursday. If he had let him go as scheduled, the Republican debaters who would have followed him on the air could then have torn his speech apart before a national audience thereby upstaging him and giving their alternative views greater visibility at the same time. That said, isn’t it time we had a moratorium on tearing ideas and opponents apart for a while. Isn’t this one of those "we’re all in this together moments?" Maybe we ought to just listen to each other for a while … and if the pols don’t come up with any good ideas, then maybe we should listen to see if someone else does.

For that reason, I am really looking forward to the Republican debate, Governor Romney’s scheduled economic speech, the President’s jobs speech, and the newly scheduled jobs speech from Speaker Boehner in the hopes that a few ideas may emerge that are of material significance to the economy. But I will admit I am skeptical.

Every sign is that — as was the case for Herman’s Hermits with regard to Mrs. Brown’s lovely daughter — the second verse will be the same as the first (as will be, I fear, all subsequent verses). We’ll get tired rhetoric and demagoguery flavored with idea-bits, school-uniform sized initiatives that are almost always less than meets the eye.

The Republicans at the debate will call for cutting the deficit without raising revenues or really scrutinizing defense spending. And the President will offer an array of earnest, modest ideas that may, based on current rumors, produce a million new, primarily short-term jobs. He probably won’t make any bold new revenue proposals or for that matter any bold proposals of any sort. He certainly won’t volunteer needed cuts to entitlement programs. We’ll get a too small infrastructure initiative, too little stimulus, too many compromises. We’ll welcome his seriousness and to the extent Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and other individual Republican candidates also provide concrete, job-creating ideas that will be more than welcome, it will be essential to having any kind of constructive public policy dialogue in the next few months.

I worry this will be the case in part because I am getting the impression that some of the President’s advisors are recommending he only make proposals that can actually pass. This in turn leads to a lot of folks around the President negotiating with themselves before they even start discussions with the opposition. This dilutes everything.

It’s how we are likely to end up with a million dollar patch for a 25 million job hole. And since Hill Republicans will clearly oppose much of it from, the pre-digested compromises will only succeed in producing in smaller failures rather than the larger variety.

As Eugene Robinson wisely noted in the Washington Post earlier this week, the President needs to recognize this, make the best case he can for the big ideas we need to the Congress and then, if they drop the ball as they very well might, then he should plan on taking his ideas not just to the dysfunctional Congress but to the American people. He and those around him should believe in his ability as a leader.  He should be out there pushing for a really big infrastructure program, a major investment in American competitiveness through committing to building the next generation smart highway system, smart energy grids, advanced air traffic control network, the underpinnings for our IT future. He should be talking only in terms of programs that created multiple millions of jobs while enhancing productivity and helping to attract new investment. If it means a payroll tax holiday and a repatriation of earnings plan that works, he should go for it. If it means major regulatory reform to accelerate projects waylaid by sluggish approval processes, he should make it happen. But please, frame it in a vision, paint a picture of what America can do to lead again in the world.  

He should plan on spending the next 12 months out on the road selling his big ideas directly to the American people so the next election is a ratification of his vision and a mandate for his action. It is literally the only path out of this mess.

We have to recognize that will take a year. Will markets tolerate it? Of course, they will. Especially if they see some kind of real big thinking going on. Especially if real progress seems possible in the foreseeable future. And I continue to hope that President Obama’s likely opponent will be Mitt Romney or some other responsible actor and that the ensuing debate might actually be considerably more rational and thoughtful than the food fight that seems to be taking place up and down Pennsylvania Avenue these days.

Finally, to those of you who say Obama is too measured or Romney, for example, is too bland, it’s worth remembering that the modern president who may have done the most creating the infrastructure we have today, laying the foundation for modern American competitiveness, was also accused of both traits. His name was Dwight Eisenhower and it is only half a century later that people truly began to appreciate the consequences of what he accomplished with America’s highway system, air traffic system, aerospace industry, even some of the foundations of our venture capital system. He wasn’t a career politician. He wasn’t a charismatic speaker. He was just serious and dogged and experienced. He was also, of course, the one thing that seems in shortest supply these days. He was unquestionably and down to the marrow of his bone a leader.

And if they don’t make them like that any more we are all in deep, deep trouble.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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