President Obama needs to re-read Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents: The Politics of Leadership by the late Richard Neustadt. Adviser to presidents and arguably the most important scholar on the nation’s highest office in the 20th century, Neustadt consistently suggested that in order for a president to lead successfully, he needed to persuade his advisers, Congress, and even the public that his solutions were correct. It would be only through the use of his reputation (real or perceived), his personal prestige, and his persuasive ability that he would be able to govern effectively.
After almost two years of at best difficult sledding, the president appeared to find the reins of government during the lame duck session of Congress. Using compromise and strong-arming, Obama moved ahead with both Democratic-desired programs and Republican-fostered tax cuts to end 2010 seeming to have cast off the image of being a weak, ineffective president.
Two months later, Obama is once again being tested as to whether he can demonstrate truly strong leadership, both domestically and internationally.
The gauntlet has been thrown down by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. They have sent to the Democrat-controlled Senate a funding bill for the balance of the fiscal year ending on Sept. 30 calling for $61 billion of cuts to be made in the 2011 budget, or else they will refuse to consider any continuing resolution funding the federal government, in effect threatening to shut down the federal government on March 4.
For the president, the problem is not only whether to urge the Democrats in the Senate to compromise and, if so, how far to go in trying to avoid a shut-down. It is the matter of who is controlling and framing the debate in the eyes of the American people. At this point the president appears to be permitting the Republicans to manage the discussion. The public senses that, unlike House Republican leadership, Obama is not sufficiently sensitive to the ballooning federal deficit. The people need to have someone explain very simply the consequence of this approach to budgeting.
The president has to cease teaching and really play the political game; he needs to lead. It is imperative that he not assume that just because President Bill Clinton won the “who shut down the government” fight with Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1995-1996, it is no guarantee that Obama will win the fight with Speaker John Boehner in 2011.
Internationally, it is both harder and easier for Obama to lead. On the one hand, there is considerably less partisan discussion between the Republicans and Democrats and between the White House and Congress. In foreign policy, even his most extreme critics on the Left and on the Right are not seeking to actively challenge his tactics in dealing with the Middle East crisis. It has not made leadership easier.
On the other hand, actually making decisions is more challenging and potentially effective. After a few days of confused responses to the attacks against President Hosni Mubarak, the administration appeared to get its act and its message together. Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, and Morocco present concerns for U.S. policy makers, but they are different from those in Egypt, given its critical economic position and those in the Gulf.
In the case of Bahrain, matters are more complicated. As the Fifth Fleet is based there, specific U.S. national security interests were directly affected by the rioting. In addition, the realization of the potential spillover to critical U.S. oil interests in Saudi Arabia — given its proximity to Bahrain — increased the skittishness in Washington’s ability to act.
What apparently developed at the outset in the Obama White House was a stand-off between the realists and the ideologues. Where earlier in this administration the ideologues most likely would have held the day, it seems that while the debate continues, the political pragmatists are winning.
It is not clear that this side will maintain its current edge. In fact, the next weeks, months, and probably years will be full of unending tests for Washington as it seeks to negotiate the evolving minefield that is becoming Middle East politics. Balancing the need to support peaceful movements for change, growing democratic aspirations, domestic economic pressures, and international security considerations will demand a sensitive yet dynamic and flexible approach to regional politics. (Solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute eventually may well be seen as child’s play compared to dealing with the widespread and growing unrest in the Arab world.)
Two things have clearly happened. After an exceedingly difficult first two years followed by what he called a “shellacking” in November, Obama realized that both politics and policy will succeed only through compromise. He also understood that this is achieved, using Neustadt’s terminology, by affirming the prestige of the presidency, risking his reputation, and persuading others to follow him. During the next few days and weeks, as Obama does political battle on both the budgetary front and in the Middle East maelstrom, his leadership skills will be severely tested. His capacity to be re-elected in 2012 may ride on how well he sells his approach to the American people and how satisfied they are with his conduct.