Charlie Leonard: President should lead more and whine less
December 1, 2011
In 1976 an unpopular president, Gerald Ford, adopted a campaign strategy of remaining in the White House until almost a month before the general election so he could serve full time fulfilling his duties as the nation’s chief executive rather than spend his time campaigning. His did so for two reasons:
On one level, Ford said he felt an enormous obligation to put his responsibilities as president ahead of his election campaign. On another level, Ford also said he believed that his best chance to win election was for voters to become more familiar with his leadership qualities as president than his skills as a candidate.
In the end, despite having lost the election, Ford’s decision to venture no further than the White House lawn in making his case as the one best able to lead the country won him significant new respect and credibility with the American people. Following the election, Ford’s approach became known as a “Rose Garden strategy” – and some version of staying focused on official duties has been followed by every president seeking re-election ever since.
Until now, that is.
With 14 months to go until the next president and Congress are sworn in, President Obama has chosen to pursue a very different election strategy. Rather than remain “presidential” and show the country he can lead, solve problems, bring people together and work with Congress, Mr. Obama and his team have clearly decided his skills as a candidate are far superior to his skills as president.
In just the past week it was reported that the president and his team knew that the congressional “Supercommittee” (which was charged with formulating a bipartisan deficit-reduction plan) would fail. But, rather than try and help the committee succeed, the president made a deliberate decision not to get involved in helping to solve the most important issue facing the country for fear it might hurt his image and re-election chances.
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It was further reported that the president has set a new record for making “official” White House visits (meaning taxpayer-funded) to electoral “swing states,” or places where the president either won or lost narrowly in 2008. On virtually every “official” trip, the president gives a speech in support of his proposed jobs bill. The president does this despite knowing his proposal stands no chance of passage – with Republicans or Democrats. He also does it knowing full well he is further dividing the political parties and the American people.
Now, I know some of my Democratic friends will say that Republicans in Congress share some of the blame here, and they are right. Republicans are making the president’s job very tough. Republicans oppose his policies, question his motives and flat-out refuse to negotiate on a few issues like taxes.
But despite all that, here are three very important things to remember:
1. Being president is a hard job. It might be the hardest job in the world. The president acts as if he’s surprised and more than a little frustrated by this reality.
2. The president also acts as if partisanship came about on his watch. The fact is that our politics have been extremely partisan for a very long time, but it hasn’t stopped others from making progress. Look no further than some of our state capitals, where governors of both parties have been extremely effective at working with legislative opponents.
3. Our politics – and the makeup of the Congress following the 2012 election – are not likely to change in a way that favors the president. In fact, if he is re-elected, it will likely be harder given the president’s decision to base his campaign on attacking Republicans.
All of which also reminds me of a couple of very important lessons that were imparted by the Tom Hanks character, Jimmy Dugan, in the movie “A League of Their Own.”
After one of his players complains about how hard it is to perform every day, Dugan tells her: “It’s supposed to be hard! If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great!”
And, in another scene when one of his players breaks down in tears as a result of some tough criticism, Dugan reminds his player and the whole team that “there is no crying in baseball!”
So, on behalf of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Dugan, I have some strong advice for the president that could both help the country and also help his re-election chances. It’s this simple: Stop your whining and go back to work.
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