Daniel W. Drezner

What is presidential leadership?

Since gun regulation failed the 60-vote threshold in the Senate, some pundits have trotted out the "failure of presidential leadership" meme. See Maureen Dowd, Ron Fournier, Dana Milbank, or Peggy Noonan for example. To most political scientists — hell, to most people who’ve taken an advanced poli sci course —  this a pretty unpersuasive argument. Andrew Rudalevige, ...

Since gun regulation failed the 60-vote threshold in the Senate, some pundits have trotted out the "failure of presidential leadership" meme. See Maureen Dowd, Ron Fournier, Dana Milbank, or Peggy Noonan for example. To most political scientists — hell, to most people who’ve taken an advanced poli sci course —  this a pretty unpersuasive argument. Andrew Rudalevige, Ezra Klein, Seth MasketJonathan Bernstein, and Jonathan Chait have all pushed back fiercely on this question. 

Now, that said, pushback on the leadership question is difficult for two reasons. First, there’s a lot of the political commentariat that wants the world to operate along the Aaron Sorkin Big Speech Theory of Politics. Klein is correct to observe that "the world isn’t here to please you," but it’s amazing how much wishcasting can make it easy to ignore. 

The second problem is that in pushing back, it is too easy for critics to be interpreted as saying that presidential leadership does not exist. So critics should point out moments or opportunities for presidential leadership to better define the boundaries of this concept. 

For one example, I give you Randall Archibold and Michael Shear’s story in the New York Times about Obama’s Mexico trip. The title gives it away:  "Obama Seeks to Banish Stereotypical Image of Mexico." 

President Obama, in speech to high school and university students here, said Friday that it was time to banish the stereotypical Mexico of violence and people fleeing across borders and embrace the new image of a strengthening democracy and economy.

“I have come to Mexico because it is time to put old mind-sets aside,’’ Mr. Obama said to vigorous applause from hundreds of students at the National Anthropology Museum. “It’s time to recognize new realities, including the impressive progress in today’s Mexico. For even as Mexicans continue to make courageous sacrifices for the security of your country, even as Mexicans in the countryside and in neighborhoods not far from here struggle to give their children a better life, it’s also clear that a new Mexico is emerging.’’

Although poverty remains deep and wages have stagnated, Mr. Obama focused on the positive signs of the economy, including growth measurements that exceed those in the United States, a surge in the manufacturing and technology industries and rising levels of middle class Mexicans.

OK, this matters. As the Chicago Council on Global Affairs demonstrated in their poll this week, Americans have a dim and distorted view of Mexico. Mention that country, and the three issues that spring immediately to mind are drugs, illegal immigration, and the "giant sucking sound" of NAFTA. In point of fact, illegal immigration has slowed to a trickle and outward Mexican FDI has exploded. Mexico’s new president is pretty popular, and the next head of the WTO might be Mexican as well. Most Americans know nothing contained in the last two sentences. 

One thing presidents can do with their bully pulpit is try to correct public misperceptions that are detrimental to the national interest … like U.S. views on Mexico. Let’s not kid ourselves — one visit and one speech alone won’t do that. But it can start to alter public attitudes on the margins. That’s a start — and very useful example of positive presidential leadership. 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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