Saturday, October 18, 2008

Leadership and Passion

Much has been made of Barak Obama's coolness under fire, his capacity for staying calm when attacked, rising above the fray, distancing himself, what we call Getting on the Balcony.

Anyone who has watched the debates has seen that quality. David Brooks' op-ed piece in the Times yesterday was particularly insightful in pointing this out.

I have always thought that it was impossible to get elected President without making an emotional connection with people (see Dukakis, Michael; Kerry, John; Mondale, Walter). Obama is proving to be the exception.

Of course, if the Democrats were to blow this election they ought to pack their bags and try some other country. Hard to imagine a situation where they would have more externalities working in their favor. They could have nominated any of those folks who they paraded before us during the primary season and it would have been theirs to lose. And that was before the economy tanked.

To some extent, as a young, attractive, oratorically-gifted African-American (Remember Joe Biden's early comments about Obama being the kind of African-American who could get elected? He was right, of course, even though he was not in a position to say it. And now look where he is!), all Obama has to do is show up to generate an emotional response. But watching him, you do get the sense that he is somehow wired to stay cool. That ear-to-ear grin he displayed during McCain's roast at the Al Smith dinner was a campaign first for him.

If he can elected without displaying emotion, can he govern that way? Or, better still, can he exercise leadership, deliver bad news, ask for and get support for short term sacrifice, without touching our hearts?

I spent a few years working for Bill Weld, when he was Governor of Massachusetts. Weld, like Obama, is a cerebral fellow, supremely confident of his above-the-neck abilities. He, like Obama, took office during a difficult economic time, though on a much smaller scale than Obama will face. His lack of emotion was, on the whole, a huge asset to him as he cleaned up the financial mess the post-Presidential candidacy Dukakis Administration had left for him. He was able to make tough decisions without letting his feelings, or his ideology, get in the way. And, most important, he never took personally the intense criticism he received. He was able to brush it off as going with the territory. That's all on the plus side.

Weld was fortunate in that he never had to mobilize broad segments of people to make any sacrifice, to do anything difficult. He was able to forge behind the scenes agreements with the President of the State Senate and the Speaker of the Massachusetts House to get the legislation he needed.

Obama's dispassionate demeanor will stand him in good stead when he has to make a tough call and take heat for it. But as the first vote on the bailout showed, getting legislation through the Congress will require more than a good relationship with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reed. Obama will have to go over their heads and energize the public to put pressure on the Congress if he is going to get the country out of this economic mess and restore the nation's standing in the community of nations.

Barak Obama will have enormous political capital in his first few months in office. But, as Bill Clinton discovered, the post-election euphoria will quickly fade. In order to govern in difficult times, Obama will have to draw on a part of himself which, if it exists, has been kept under wraps for the entire campaign. It is an open question whether, if and when he tries to go there, he will find anything to draw on at all.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Leadership in a Crisis

In a crisis, what we WANT from people who are running the show is just two things. Be present and feel our pain. George W. Bush is not particularly good at either, but he has been better at it in the economic current crisis than he was after Katrina or 9/11. Rudy Giuliani is the master. Nothing he likes better than to be present and to feel our pain and 9/11 gave him a chance to salvage his reputation by playing to his strengths. He pandered to us in every way, telling us to go back and have fun and the government would go catch the bad guys without any sacrifices at home. Giuliani accumulated enormous political capital during the period right after 9/11, but instead of spending a little of it to stimulate a conversation in this country about what we had to do differently because the world had changed, he tried to spend it by quashing an investigation of why New York City was not better prepared, by extending his term as Mayor beyond that statutory limits, and by writing a book called....Leadership. Ugh. But what we WANT from a Big Foot in a crisis is different than what we NEED. Leadership is about delivering to people what they need, not what they want. It is about challenging your own constituency. A crisis is an opportunity for leadership, for taking steps that are needed but would not be tolerated without the anxiety and fear that the crisis stimulates. So it was good to see the colorless Gordon Brown, who no one would want to have a beer with, recognized that a crisis was an opportunity and led the world in taking steps that were beyond the imagination of our White House. In announcing his bank plan and his idea of convening the world's financial chiefs Brown said that "This is not a time for conventional thinking or outdated dogma but for fresh and innovative intervention that gets to the heart of the problem" and called for "global action". The reality, of course, is that he doesn't know what will work any better than Paulson and Bernacke and my financial advisor do. Brown's just guessing, trying an experiment. But at least he has been willing to try something that was way outside the standard repertoire. And the idea that the folks who let us collude with them to get into this mess can be relied on to get us out of it is foolish. But we were foolish before, when we took out the mortgages we could not afford, ran up credit card debt we could not pay off, and, in my case, kept much too much of our nest egg in equities. So we have little choice but to be foolish again, and keep our fingers crossed that one of their guesses will staunch the hemmoraging.

Sunday, October 5, 2008


Why is it that the networks insist on partisan commentators spinning their analysis to suit their perspective? To the credit of the networks, they usually identify the party affiliation and activity of the Ed Rollins and Paul Belaga types. But are we supposed to believe them, or just reinforce our own biases? Maybe it is because there's no one out there who hasn't got an axe to grind. I cannot figure out whether it is better to have a Donna Brazile or Bill Bennett because we know who they are really for or a David Gergen, who has been willing to work for anyone who pays him. The post-VP debate blather was almost insufferable, and coming from a total political junkie like me that is saying something. Based on Palin's performance, Rollins just about made her the front runner for the GOP nomination in 2012, while Belaga painted her as giving people more reason to vote for the Obama-Biden ticket. Yadayadayada. But the Palin factor is still alive and well. The rants against her from liberal women and especially liberal pundits (see Dowd, Hebert , and Collins in the Times,just to take the most obvious examples) keep coming. As best as I can tell, she drives my coastal liberal friends bananas because she challenges them opn three fronts: class, ideology, and sexuality. Isn't Palin just what the women's movement is about? Creating a world in which woman of all types and packaging can play on the biggest stages? Isn't there room for a low brow, sexual, conservative woman trailblazer? Won't that really help their cause?

Friday, October 3, 2008

Scapegoating and the Bailout Blame Game

Palin's repeated references last night to "Wall Street greed and corruption" was just the latest in a string of diversionary finger-pointing and blaming. Gwen Ifill (who never should have been moderating the debate anyway because of the book she is writing which will be much more successful if Obama wins than if McCain should prevail, no matter how hard her defenders like David Hauslaib try to spin it away) colluded by asking the VP nominees who was to blame, but she's no different than many of her colleagues in the media who enjoy focusing on who to punish rather than what is wrong and what to do about it. Much more fun. Scapegoating is a classic work avoidance mechanism, a way of helping a group of people turn away from their own responsibility and accountability by pointing to someone else as the source of their discomfort. Hope you read Bethany McLean's courageous piece on the op-ed page of today's Times. Finally, someone, unsurprisingly not someone from political press or a politician, has put some responsibility on all of us, we who, after all, were the enablers for those Wall Street fat cats. They made off with their millions, but that was because we kept running up our credit card and mortgage debt, way beyond what we could afford if the house of cards ever started to fall. It is not government or Wall Street that has to change. Look in the mirror, folks. There's the culprit.