This time next year, we could have the two presidential candidates in play. Only God knows who the Republicans will decide upon, but President Obama is a lock on the Democratic side. The big issues that will most likely decide the election of 2012 are the economy and leadership. And now there’s new data on the leadership front.
According to a Gallup poll released this week, Obama has fallen more than 20 points in the leadership category in less than two years. Right now, 52 percent of Americans believe he is a strong and decisive leader, while 47 percent say he is not. Bad news for the prez.
Truthfully, much of the leadership issue these days is driven by style. The last strong leader America had was President Reagan, who came across as tough but not belligerent. Reagan fired the air traffic controllers, thereby busting the union, demanded that the Soviets tear down the wall in East Germany, and generally governed with a good-natured confidence. His acting experience helped him project authority and benevolence at the same time — not an easy thing to do.
President Bush the Elder came across rather fatherly, even when waging war against Saddam Hussein. Bill Clinton had little authority because of his controversies. And Bush the Younger’s battlefield setbacks eroded his leadership image.
Obama is a deliberative leader, a man who seeks consensus before acting. He took months before committing more troops to Afghanistan, did not alter the Bush strategy in Iraq even after criticizing it, and seemed to be indecisive about Libya. French President Nicolas Sarkozy was the guy who drove the military action, with Obama hitching a ride on the Frenchman’s passion.
In turbulent times, people naturally look for leaders who can bring them comfort and reassurance. At this point, Obama is having trouble doing that, and the Gallup poll reflects that reality. Obama’s style is cool and sometimes distant. When waging war or trying to prevent economic disaster, detachment can be detrimental. Rallying the troops usually wins the day.
President Lincoln was the nation’s strongest leader, with George Washington second and Franklin Roosevelt third. All three had huge problems to solve and did so with courage and bold decision making. Lincoln, in particular, was constantly under siege. If the Confederates had won the Battle of Gettysburg, the union might have been shattered forever. Lincoln knew that. Yet, he remained strong and in control and did what he had to do to hold the country together — even suspending habeas corpus.
Obama is a big admirer of Lincoln, as is George W. Bush. Both men understand that true leadership requires stone-cold courage and brilliant decision-making capability. Most human beings fall short in both categories, which is why true leadership is rarely on display.
But if it is in 2012, the person who shows it will be president.