It's Time for President Obama to Become a Leader

The president's professorial approach to issues has left Americans wondering what he stands for. He needs to find his Berlin Wall and take a stand on something.

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Who is President Barack Obama? The question gives you pause, doesn't it? That's because there is no quick or obvious answer. This circumstance, more than any other, is a critical problem for Obama as he prepares for the 112th Congress to assume office. We still don't know who Obama is, what he is committed to and what he truly stands for.

Don't get me wrong; there has been real ambition and method to the Obama presidency over the past two years. There have also been a number of significant achievements of the presidency, including the financial recovery, saving GM and Chrysler, the health-care reform bill and major financial reform. But he remains a president defined more by the relentless flow of events and competing media narratives around him than by his own actions, agenda and bearing.


That ill-defined quality is due, I think, to his dogged pursuit of the three R's -- in this case, not reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic, but responsibility, reasonableness and doing the right thing. And in pursuit of these three goals, Obama has adopted a very professorial posture.  

He entered office as the avatar of bipartisanship, a leader committed to setting a new tone for national politics. He was going to be reasonable with those on the other side of the political aisle because that was one of the promises he made during the campaign. He also started out committed to doing the right thing.

This comes through in a number of ways, not the least of which was the high priority he placed on health-care reform. It is more than shameful for the world's most affluent nation to be a place where millions of its citizens do not have real health-care coverage and where a serious illness can bring a family to total financial ruin. It was the right thing to commit to doing better for all Americans.

In his inaugural address, Obama signaled that the practice of avoiding big, looming challenges was over: The moment had arrived to take responsibility today for the kind of America we want a future generation to inherit tomorrow.

Although it is one decision of his that troubles me personally, Obama's judgment to strengthen institutions in Afghanistan and challenge the Taliban insurgency is one sign of his commitment to taking responsibility today for problems that otherwise will hound us into the future.

In too many respects, however, his approach to the three R's has been pursued as largely a matter of the mind, not the meeting of political savvy and pointedly articulated moral conviction. His presidency is playing out like a course taught by a scholar who has a brilliant mind but who is unable to excite or engage the students in the classroom. Obama the candidate did a much better job than Obama the president has in reconciling the roles of manager and CEO with the need to articulate and lead on behalf of a cause and a vision.

In fairness, Obama entered office faced with a scale of challenges that no other newly elected president has confronted in the post-World War II age. Obama's predecessor handed him a $1.2 trillion deficit, two seriously mismanaged wars, doubt about the justification and rationality of American actions in foreign policy, and a global financial system on the verge of complete collapse. To make matters worse, not only did the party out of power seek ways to strategically advance its cause, but Republicans also eagerly took up the most obstructionist, "just say no" posture seen in recent political memory.