By Eugene Robinson
Last week, voters made a powerful statement about leadership: They’d like some, please. So far, there’s no evidence that either President Obama or the top Republicans in Congress were paying the slightest attention.
In his only interview since the GOP rampage, with Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes,” Obama was reasonable, analytical, professorial—but also uninspired and uninspiring. I’m just being honest, if not generous; when Kroft asked whatever happened to Obama’s “mojo,” the president gave the impression that he’s been wondering the same thing.
By uninspired, I mean there was no sense that Obama relishes the high-stakes political battles that are sure to come over the next two years. There was no hint, for example, that he looks forward to the opportunity to put Republicans on the spot about all the unrealistic budget-cutting they say they want to carry out. And by uninspiring, I mean that the president offered no vision of a brighter tomorrow. Instead, he sketched a future not quite as dim as the present.
Obama said he has learned that “leadership isn’t just legislation”—that it’s also “a matter of persuading people ... giving them confidence and bringing them together ... setting a tone.” He acknowledged that “we haven’t always been successful at that,” then gave a demonstration.
“Do you get discouraged? Are you discouraged now?” Kroft asked.
“I do get discouraged,” Obama replied, according to the transcript of the full interview. “I thought that the economy would have gotten better by now. You know, one of the things I think you understand—as president you’re held responsible for everything. But you don’t always have control of everything, right? And especially an economy this big. There are limited tools to encourage the kind of job growth that we need. But I have fundamental confidence in this country. I am constantly reminded that we have been through worse times than these, and we’ve always come out on top. And I’m positive that the same thing is going to happen this time. You know, there are going to be setbacks, and we may take two steps forward and one step back, but the trajectory of this country is always positive.”
Well, it may be unfair, but presidents aren’t allowed to be discouraged. They aren’t allowed to talk about the limitations of the job, or the fact that they are held accountable for everything from inclement weather to the lack of a championship playoff system in college football. Presidents are not permitted to acknowledge familiarity with the concept of “one step back.” And good things aren’t “going to happen,” in the presidential lexicon. They’re already happening.
Maybe Obama will find that misplaced mojo during his trip to India and other points in Asia. But as Rep. John Boehner, the presumptive new speaker of the House, says, it’s the president who “sets the agenda” in Washington. The day after George W. Bush got thumped in the 2006 midterms, he dismissed Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary. A good old-fashioned Cabinet shuffle would be one way of letting voters know that the administration intends to move forward—rather than bemoan having to govern in lousy economic times.
And besides, the White House has caught an incredible break: In terms of positive, forward-looking leadership, the Republicans are offering even less.
Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have set their sights incredibly low. They talk about controlling government spending and slashing the deficit, but they have no plan to accomplish these goals—none that they’re willing to lay out in specific detail, at least. They won’t say what they want to cut. They won’t say how they intend to deal with entitlements.
Their intention seems to be to spend the next two years orchestrating largely symbolic votes on whether to undo what Obama has done. The public gave Obama a “blame Bush” honeymoon of just a few months; I’m betting that Boehner and McConnell will be cut even less “blame Obama” slack.
The smaller, much more liberal Democratic caucus in Congress has a clear agenda: full speed ahead in a campaign of progressive reform. The newly elected tea party Republicans have a clear agenda: full speed astern, all the way to 1789. If nobody else wants to steer the boat, the people full of passion and ideas will be happy to fight over the wheel. Icebergs be damned.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group