On leadership

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) delivered a closely-watched speech the other day, in which he went after President Obama over, among other things, the issue of leadership. “We continue wait and hope that our president will finally stop being a bystander in the Oval Office,” the governor said. “We hope that he will shake off the paralysis that has made it impossible for him to take on the really big things.”

The next day, I received a few emails from liberal friends, all of whom are Obama detractors from the left, who seemed giddy but bemused by the fusion of Republican talking points and liberal complaints. They don’t love Christie, but they seemed to love the rhetorical shots Christie was taking at the president.

I find much of this pretty bizarre, not just because dyed-in-the-wool lefties are applauding cheap GOP talking points, but primarily because the argument itself is so weak. John Dickerson had a good piece yesterday on the nature of presidential leadership.

What the president’s critics really mean when they say the president “isn’t leading” is that he hasn’t announced that he is supporting their plans, or that he hasn’t decided to commit public suicide by announcing a position for which they can then denounce him.

By any measure, Obama is a leader. The first stimulus plan, health care reform, and financial regulatory reform he pushed for are all significant pieces of legislation. Christie’s measurement of leadership is doing “big things” even if they are unpopular. Health care, as Republicans will tell you, represents about one-fifth of the economy. Obama certainly wasn’t facing the prospect of popularity when he pushed for changing it.

I remember taking a class on leadership and being surprised, as a naive grad student, how complicated it was. Leadership at a conceptual level seems straightforward and obvious — a person steps up, presents a vision, and encourages others to follow him or her. There is, however, far more to it than that, and there are even different models of leadership (transactional vs. transformational, for example).

But for the purposes of conversation, the notion that Barack Obama is a “bystander,” too overcome by “paralysis” to do “big things,” isn’t just wrong, it’s ridiculous. Indeed, as far as the right is concerned, the attack is itself in conflict with the conservative notion that Obama is destroying American civilization with his radical agenda. One can be a bystander and one can be a radical activist hell bent on gutting our cherished traditions from within — but one cannot be both.

Contradictions aside, what are we to use as a metric for evaluating a president as a leader? If the metric has to do with making controversial decisions to advance the greater good, Obama has clearly done this repeatedly, including his unpopular-but-successful rescue of the American auto industry. If the metric relates to accomplishments, Obama’s record is lengthy (health care, Wall Street reform, Recovery Act, DADT repeal, student loan reform, New START, etc.). If the metric has to do with making tough calls when combating enemies, Obama’s role in killing Osama bin Laden would appear to meet that standard, too.

Has Obama compromised? Sure, but so has every other successful president. Has he fallen short on several goals? Of course, but he’s leading at time of nearly impossible circumstances, after inheriting a Republican mess of unimaginable proportions, and his tenure hasn’t even lasted three years. Is Obama struggling to get things done with this tragically dysfunctional Congress? Obviously, but there’s no point in blaming the president for the structural impediments of the American system of government. As Dickerson explained, “Calling for leadership is a trick both parties use to arouse anger and keep us from thinking too much more about the underlying issue. If only we had a leader, everything would be solved, they’d like us to think. But we should think more about what it actually takes to be president — what kind of leadership works and what kind of leadership doesn’t.”

Ultimately, the president’s critics are raising the wrong complaint. For the right, the criticism should be that Obama may be an effective leader, but he’s effectively leading the nation in a liberal direction they disapprove of. For the left, the criticism should be that Obama isn’t leading the nation to the left quickly or aggressively enough.

But to characterize him as a passive bystander is absurd.