American boot prints in moon dust. That’s the legacy of John F. Kennedy. Putting an American on the moon wasn’t preordained. It was a wild notion presented to the American people. That’s how effective presidents operate. They traffic in ideas. They build coalitions behind them. They insist on change and galvanize majorities to achieve it. They dare. They challenge. They persuade and inspire. To successfully lead from the White House, a president must sell his ideas, both to the American people and to their elected representatives.
Food will win the war, the arsenal of democracy, war rationing, a Social Security trust fund, the Domino Theory, putting a man on the moon, the Great Society, Medicare, the arms race, peace through strength and the Coalition of the Willing — good and bad, those ideas and programs shaped our last century. But none of that history was predestined.
Projects were built, programs enacted, wars fought and frontiers breached because American presidents sold ideas to the American people. Appealing to our consciences, to our imaginations, to our pride, to our fears, to our virtues and faiths, past American presidents made their mark, reshaped the nation and forged their place in history by getting the American people behind their visions.
Our current commander-in-chief is taking a different tack.
In the days since America learned the name Adam Lanza, President Obama has marshaled tremendous efforts to promote gun-control legislation. He has met with grieving families. He’s offered public prayers for them. He has asked, and even admonished, the American public to remember the horror that we collectively felt. Fearing that time’s passage might dim citizens’ memories, President Obama has continually surrounded himself with victims of gun violence and the parents of murdered children. He has enlisted his vice president in the cause. He’s even enlisted former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords to stress the need for substantive action. Throughout, he has publicly petitioned and scolded our lawmakers in Congress. Our president has immersed himself in the cause and spent a great deal of his post-inaugural political capital on it.
Barack Obama took the atrocity at Sandy Hook Elementary School personally. He wants America to be safer for children. He strongly believes that gun-control legislation can help. For over three months, President Obama has been fighting the good fight. By good, I mean that he has fought strongly and openly for a cause he believes in. Though I don’t share his beliefs or policy objectives, I recognize and appreciate the fact that he has taken the lead — and the political risk — on an issue. It is a role that he has largely avoided over the past four years.
How does an American president avoid leadership roles and political risk? Mostly by remaining a bystander. By ignoring issues like climate change, gun control and immigration reform — despite campaign promises — for an entire presidential term. By not attending to America’s finances for four years. By “leading from behind” in Libya. By not campaigning in midterm elections. By vanishing when Benghazi hit the fan. By avoiding leadership roles and thorny issues, President Obama sidesteps, not just blame and failure, but the possibility of blame and failure (with no small help from an obliging press corps).