Essay: Leadership in the 21st Century: Compromise

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Leadership in the 21st Century:

Compromise and conciliation in the presidency of Barack Obama

Barack Obama became the first African-American president of the United States in 2008, an accomplishment that few believed could have transpired only a few years before his meteoric political rise. Since his inauguration, 'no drama Obama' (as he is known) has drawn fire from the left and the right. The left has criticized his preference for conciliation over confrontation in the healthcare debate and for his support for the war in Afghanistan; the right has criticized his supposedly 'bleeding heart' sympathies that have led him to support healthcare and additional support for unemployed Americans.

In Leadership 101, one of the sections is entitled "How can I become disciplined?" Author John C. Maxwell states that the first person a potential leader must lead is 'you' (Maxwell, 2002, p.25). As chronicled in Barack Obama's memoir Dreams From My Fathers, Obama's mother was an unsparing taskmaster when it came to her son's education, often forcing 'Barry,' as then he was known, to study early in the morning. "When Obama lived with his mother in Indonesia, she used to wake him at 4am to study English, telling him: 'This is no picnic for me either, Buster'" (Finn & Baxter 2008). Obama was a strong student during his early years of life, partially the product of his academic but free-spirited mother's discipline. But as he grew older, his personal conflicts about his racial identity resulted in occasional 'acting out.' He grew less focused, and even dabbled in drugs. The product of an absent Kenyan father and a white woman, the young Obama was uncertain of his cultural identity. However, after matriculating at Occidental College, Obama improved his grades, transferred to Columbia University, and eventually excelled at Harvard Law School. He regained his former discipline, or rather he took the discipline that had once been imposed upon him by his mother and used this to gain a sense of empowerment (Willis 2010, p.1).

But at times Obama still felt like a "perpetual outsider" (Willis 2010, p.1). His ability to secure leadership positions, including becoming the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law review, was due to his 'cool' persona of intelligence that enabled him to transcend cultural differences. Obama's strong character and reputation for integrity won him the respect even of conservatives at Harvard, and at the University of Chicago Law School, where he taught constitutional law. Obama's reputation was that he was a man who would make decisions based on facts. His persona also challenged conventional stereotypes about black manhood: where the common media image at the time (and even today) of a black man is that of an angry person, enraged at society, Obama projected a reasoned, calm demeanor. This may have had to do with his Hawaiian roots, as Hawaii has a unique island culture characterized by diversity and diplomacy in a manner that is uncharacteristic of other states of the mainland.

This urge to conciliate, rather than to engage in conflict resulted in a strong first year of leadership for Obama: "Until Christmas the narrative had gone largely his way: his first year saw a huge stimulus package passed, a bank bailout succeed, military strategy in Afghanistan transformed, a car industry restructured, big investments in green energy, an unwinding of the legacy of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in foreign affairs. It was not without struggle or failure: Guantanamo remained open, Iraq stayed unstable, recovery was slow and health reform kept slipping from his grasp. But the narrative was his," wrote Andrew Sullivan (Sullivan 2010). However, even his supporters have felt that Obama failed to capitalize upon his early gains, and did not demand enough of either his opponents or his defenders in terms of 'backing' him to achieve longer-term goals.

In terms of his long-term goals, Obama is staggeringly ambitious: "He is extremely cautious from day-to-day, staggeringly flexible on tactics, but not at all modest when you look at the big picture. He still wants to rebuild the American economy from the ground up, re-regulate Wall Street, withdraw from Iraq, win in Afghanistan, get universal health insurance and achieve a two-state solution in Israel/Palestine in his first term. That's all. And although you can see many small failures on the way, and agonizing slowness as well, you can also see he hasn't dropped his determination to achieve it all" (Sullivan 2010). But there is a discrepancy between his vision, so brilliantly articulated in speeches, and his acceptance compromise after compromise, such as his capitulation to pro-life interests regarding the health bill, which prohibits federal funds being used to support abortion and his willingness to 'kill' the availability of a public option for the uninsured.

Obama's strongest supporters would counter that the president has been bold at times: he has tried to impose an offshore oil drilling ban after the BP spill fiasco. He has lifted the ban on federal funding for stem cell research, and has continued to try to close Guantanamo Prison. But flip-flopping on the question of the venue of New York criminal court (as opposed to a military body) to try accused 9/11 mastermind Sheik Khalid Mohammad has drawn fire that he is not 'tough enough' on terror -- or tough enough on Republicans. Obama clearly listens to his critics: he created an organic White House garden, based upon the public chiding of the California chef Alice Waters and food activist Michael Pollan that the Obamas should practice what they preached in their anti-obesity campaign. But can listening to the input of too many people make a leader look 'wishy washy' rather than bipartisan or open to change?

As a state senator, Obama "played in a weekly poker game with mostly Republicans" (Lebovitch 2010). Yet true 'across the aisle' agreements have been elusive during his presidency, given the highly polarized nature of Washington politics at present. While politics in Washington is always famously divisive, today the prospect of Democrats and Republicans working together is even more elusive, and Obama's diplomatic style has made him look weak, even uncommitted rather than open to changing his mind in a positive fashion. The times may have changed -- this is no longer the 1960s and 1970s when Obama's attitude made him a favorite of both Republicans and Democrats, regardless of his color or class. Yet it is also possible that Obama has diluted his credibility. Prioritization, after all is a key aspect of leadership (Maxwell, 2002, p.30). "It's hard to argue that Obama hasn't spread himself thin. Most pundits seem to agree the economy should be the focus, but clearly the administration is focused on a variety of 'big' things, ranging from gays in the military, to national health care, to cap-and-trade. Moreover, the president has failed to take control of these issues, choosing instead to delegate his agenda to Congress" (Lewis, 2009).

Some commentators have argued that the force of history and events must propel Obama into adopting a style that may or may not be natural to him, or at least is not consistent with his previous approaches to leadership. Yet when the main orchestrator of Obama's war in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, criticized the President, Vice-President, and other top-level officials, in a controversial Rolling Stone interview, Obama was decisive in his actions and decided to fire him almost immediately, because of McCrystal's insubordination and sharp words: "The time between Mr. Obama's first reading of the Rolling Stone article and his decision to accept General McChrystal's resignation offers an insight into the president's decision-making process under intense stress: He appears deliberative and open to debate, but in the end, is coldly decisive," wrote Mark Lander of the New York Times. However, the main criticisms of McChrystal were directed against Vice President Biden, not the President. The President was not defending his ego: it could be argued that Obama's dislike of such a rogue agent as McChrystal is more in line with his loyalty to others and indicates an impulse to put the good of collective above the talents of a single individual. His actions were motivated by the needs of his administration as much his own reputation. Rather than emphasize himself in his explanation, Obama instead said: "this is bigger than any one person" (Lander 2010). This demand of egolessness is made upon all of his close advisors: "I welcome debate, but I won't tolerate division," he has said, noting that he dislikes posturing for political gain (Sanger 2001). Leadership is influence, and Obama uses his own moral example of putting America first to keep his staff loyally in line, followed by swift action when they do not.

Character, creativity, knowledge, and a position of power -- all of these can create the impression of good leadership, but true leadership lies in the ability to inspire and change people's minds, writes John Maxwell (Maxwell, 2002, p.117). Obama convinced the American electorate to take a chance on electing the nation's first African-American president, just as… [END OF PREVIEW]

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