The past two years of Barack Obama’s presidency have been inundated with one major political battle after another. During this course, one constant critique of Obama has been his perceived lack of leadership and over-abundance of tolerance. This weakness has played itself out in domestic issues across the spectrum from the budget crisis to healthcare reform.
But Obama’s leadership style may not be the true issue. Instead, the liberal base which forms the foundation of Obama’s supporters are, on a whole, prone to a kind of political inclusion and tolerance similar to the kind Obama has shown over the course of his presidency. This sense of compromise, I would argue, has negatively influenced Obama’s ability to lead as forcefully as most would like.
A recent Washington Post column by Sally Kohn addresses this particular issue. While her article looks primarily at the recent acquiescing by Obama — and liberals — on the budget negotiations, the broader implication is that liberals’ self-image of being more tolerant and willing to compromise may be a huge political weakness. This is supported by a pew research poll in which only 21% of Democrats wanted their leadership to stand by their principles even if it meant a government shutdown, while 50% of Republicans wanted their leadership to stand by their principles even if it meant a government shutdown. In the hostile, highly partisan, political environment that has existed in Washington since Obama’s inauguration we have consistently watched similar political sentiments play out.
When Obama was elected in 2008, the country was seeking a new style of leadership and a new direction for our country. Obama charged forward on the ideal of bipartisanship, government that worked together for the common good. While the government had previously worked in tandem when Republicans owned the executive and legislative branches, Obama sought to create a government where votes would not be split along party lines. Unfortunately, his Republican counterparts were not nearly as interested in a unified government. To be fair, it could be argued that Democrats were not seeking a bipartisan work ethic either, but seeing as their leadership had made it a marching order, there was a willingness to attempt it (even if that willingness was relunctant).
Prior to the major budget fallout, the country watched as Capitol Hill wrestled with health care reform. Obama and the Democrats controlled the legislative and executive branches at the time, but for the sake of bipartisanship, they dropped the public option which had been railed by Republicans as the beginning of socialized health care.
The public option was actually the economic instrument to lower health care costs. In a competitive environment, price is controlled by supply and demand. When it comes to health care, the reforms attempted to control, among other things, the price of health insurance. By introducing a public option, the current health insurance providers would be forced to compete for customers with a lower-priced option backed by the federal government. This price competition would have lowered the overall price of health insurance. However, because of the Obama administration’s acquiescence, the cost of health insurance is rising to accommodate the new reforms on the industry, i.e. the inability to disqualify someone for health insurance based on previous conditions.
Essentially, by yielding on the public option issue for the sake of bipartisanship, at the behest of his own liberal supporters, Obama damaged a piece of legislation with potential cost-saving attributes.
Beyond health care reform and the budget, we see the same political behavior on other domestic issues. Liberals want to compromise on immigration reform on the federal level, while Republican states like Arizona and Georgia are passing some of the most restrictive immigration policies in history and daring the federal government to do something about it. Obama asked the Justice Department to go to bat for DADT in federal court in 2010, flying in the face of his campaign promises, but was luckily able to get it repealed during the 2010 lame duck congressional session. Thankfully, the Obama administration did not make the same mistake on the Defense of Marriage Act. While I am sure that my conservative colleagues are up in arms about this decision, the executive branch is not required to defend legal challenges to laws, although they have historically done so. The executive branch must simply enforce the laws that are passed.
Additionally, Obama, who campaigned in large part as the ‘green’ president has shown little progress on the environmental front due to partisan resistance. He has approved over 30 new drilling sites, once again as a compromise for bipartisanship, while only shallowly laying out any real plans for energy innovation. Obama made his intentions of widening the American energy mix to include alternative sources of energy clear, especially from the campaign trail, but Republicans have pushed for more expansive domestic oil drilling, which Obama has more or less given into.
Finally, in a complete reversal, Obama is going to hold the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, which he promised to close using his first executive order as president, and give them military tribunals, which he campaigned against. This reversal is a great example of how Obama has yielded, or compromised as he might say, with the right-wing on an issue that was seemingly important to him just a few years ago. Initially, Obama ordered the base closed within the year and made strong arguments for giving alleged terrorists fair trials administered by the Justice Department. Clearly, his position on these matters has changed.
I seek to point out tangible examples in which Obama, and liberals, have yielded in the name of tolerance and compromise, while their conservative colleagues have stood firmly on their principles with the backing of their equally stubborn base. As such, is the Obama presidency one of tolerance or weakness? Liberal tolerance and willingness to compromise in a highly partisan environment is political weakness.
Obama has consistently yielded on important components of key policies and legislation, but that is not entirely his fault; the liberal base is by nature more tolerant and willing to compromise, at least that is the conviction of several political psychologists. Perhaps then, liberals are generally prone not to have their way when the political environment is hostile and highly partisan. This is not to discount Obama’s successes, but it is to say that the liberal base’s tendency to desire compromise and Obama’s need to hold on to his base is weakening his leadership as president.
As we approach the 2012 election cycle, Americans are looking for strong, deliberate leadership and regardless of the ideas that may come from the left-wing, few of them are being fully brought to fruition because of the political weakness that stems from being overly tolerant of compromise. Nevertheless, despite the tendencies of his base, Obama was elected to lead, not acquiesce, give himself over to public opinion, or the psychology of his base. If Obama wants to get his presidency back on track, these wise words from Leslie Ludy should become his mantra, “a true leader must have enough backbone to stand alone - even when the crowd wants to take the easy road home.”
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