The problem with stoking a populist bonfire is that after you’ve used bankers, capitalists and political adversaries as kindling wood, eventually the fire goes out. The embers cool. The revelers go to bed. Your closest collaborators, those wild-eyed conspirators who egged you on the night before, are absent at dawn. The sun rises and all of those things that seemed so monumentally important in the moment fade.
History judges leaders on what the scene looks like when the embers cool, asking only: “What did you do, really do, when those flames burned their brightest?” and “How did you treat people when you were at the top?”
Barack Obama is clearly a man of depth. You don’t take cigarette breaks from the lecture halls of Columbia and the fabled corridors of the White House unless you are primarily interested in studying the convictions of your own mind, alone. He is also a man that commands attention; you don’t get to be president without possessing a view that resonates deeply with people.
Yet his presidency is facing an existential crisis, one of substance and credibility. It confuses many that a man who came to Washington with this much talent and political capital could stumble so profoundly.
This administration struggles because its presumption is that leadership, at its best, is an act of collaboration.
Collaboration is the buzzword of the Internet and the new religion of the priests of public policy. You can’t escape it. Government spends untold billions on collaborative software tools. Public servants speak of collaboration as if it were a new kind of mysticism. But collaboration is a process, not a product, and Americans are looking for results. They know that collaboration won’t bring their children home from war and it won’t get them a job.
The health care plan didn’t fail because it was poorly communicated, as the president suggested in his State of the Union address. The plan failed because one never existed. It crashed, in a loud public burnout, because a coherent plan was never written. In the spirit of collaboration it was delegated to Congress, who promptly wrote 2,000 pages of status-quo-protecting gobbledygook. In this way, the White House ostensibly asked alcoholics to write the rules for a new kind of Prohibition.
This same spirit governed the recent UN Climate Change conference, which, after much fanfare, resulted in an agreement to find another time to agree.
The American people don’t want their president to collaborate. They want him to champion specific choices. Nancy Pelosi has been in Congress since communism was still spooky and “The Cosby Show” was the No. 1 series on television. An entire generation has passed since senior Congressional leaders held a cogent understanding of American life. The president was elected in spite of these people, not because of them. By electing Barack Obama, many Americans believed they were lofting dynamite across the Potomac River, instead he has become the Krazy Glue that holds the madness and mediocrity of Washington firmly in place.
The executive branch must start to execute. Americans are concerned because they are beginning to suspect that their leaders don’t know how. No one thinks the president wants to ruin America; but people fear that he is speaking Greek in Spain.
The real danger extends beyond disappointment. It lives in the fact that there is a dark, flip-side to the psyche of people who love collaboration. When it doesn’t love them back, when groupthink falls apart, a race begins to deflect the blame upon easy targets. This leads to the vilification of Americans, sector by sector, trade by trade. Cue the populist bonfires. But be careful, for the thing about stoking flames before a maddened crowd is that when there’s nothing substantive left to burn, all eyes fall upon you.
Eben Carle served in the White House as an Associate Director on the Homeland Security Council from 2008-2009. He received a master’s degree in American studies from Columbia University and is currently writing his first novel.