Amongst all the reporting and political digging about the withdrawal of Larry Summers for consideration as the next chair of the Federal Reserve, today’s Wall Street Journal has an extensive article about the substance and the implications of his withdrawal. In discussing the nature and character of the White House’s decision making process, the article has a fascinating comment from former Clinton chief of staff, John Podesta, a strong partisan Democrat. Leaving aside whether or not Summers was or was not the best candidate for the position, Podesta made a blunt comment about the decision-making process employed by the President in seeking to select a replacement for Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. He said of their selection process that: “Floating trial balloons generally sucks as a strategy…. You've got to make your decision and go with it.”
Clearly the implication of the Podesta observation was that in the Bernanke replacement selection process the administration was as incompetent as it has been most recently in its indecisive response to Syria’s employment of sarin gas. The President consistently seeks to avoid making tough decisions. What is more painful, however, is that the Administration does not appear to learn.
Having watched Obama in office for almost five years, it is more and more obvious that the President is not an Executive. Like numerous Members of Congress over the years who have been fine, even outstanding legislators, most of them never made it to an executive position, largely because they recognized their own inadequacies as administrators. The story of the Obama Presidency which someday will be written—not his memoirs which he undoubtedly will write—likely will point directly to the great ideas and brilliant campaigns which Obama ran and what appears to now his failed Presidency. This is true on his domestic agenda, it is true in his dealing with Congress, and it is now evident as well in how he handled crisis in Syria.
Sadly, unlike John Kennedy who had Professor Richard Neustadt sit down with him and mentor him in what presidential leadership is all about and how to effectively assert presidential power, no one appears to have taught Obama how to lead, or to whom he listened. (Admittedly, there is much to criticize about the Kennedy Presidency but he understood the method of leadership.) Similarly, Lyndon Johnson was a brilliant leader on domestic issues, who failed tragically to lead the nation during the Viet-Nam war because he believed fighting a war was like shepherding a bill through the Senate.
Obama does not want to accept direction on leadership. As a result he has been subjected to one of the ugliest series of attacks from the opposition and this will undoubtedly continue this fall as the partisan battles begin to be waged with Congress over the budget, taxes, healthcare, and the debt ceiling. While Summers’ withdrawal will likely produce much smoother sailing in the Senate for Obama’s likely selection to head the Federal Reserve, once again the President got to this point through a failed process.