Having spent a considerable amount of time recently thinking about the intangibles of leadership and how they are often expressed in isolated moments, I watched the flap between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner with an almost scientific fascination. Rarely has there been such a stark example of a leader failing to understand the very basics of leadership.
Setting politics and policy aside, the incident showed very clearly that President Obama simply doesn’t understand what Americans want and require from him. Indeed, what they want most in a leader — and their president — are not so much policies or even politics, but a sense of purpose, determination and strength.
This isn’t exactly a mystery. It’s why George Patton has entered the popular imagination as a revered leader, rather than, say, Dwight Eisenhower or Omar Bradley (Bradley in particular has been short-changed by history in that regard, but that’s a topic for another time). It’s why some of the most memorable presidential phrases in American history — “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” and “Tear down this wall” — are so memorable.
A president’s words, gestures, posture — critical moments demand assurance of purpose and strength. Not just in the big moments. In fact, it’s the small moments that really count. The images that become iconic — Patton directing traffic on the battlefield, Roosevelt riding with his wave and smile in the car, Reagan with his self-depreciating humor on the operating table after being shot — more often start as incidental.
Those are the moments where real leadership lies. For those are the moments when we think we can see into a man’s soul or character without varnish. The teleprompters and well-coiffed hair of a “major moment” are recognized for what they are: props that can obscure as well as highlight.
In suggesting a date for his speech last week that conflicted with the Republican presidential debate, Obama set up a conflict with the Republicans. Whether one agrees that he should have done this or not — and whether it was done intentionally or not — the symbolism was immediately obvious. His supporters — and the people who wanted to be his supporters — recognized it, and even cheered it.
There was a flood of comments in The New York Times to the effect of, “It’s about time he’s thrown down the gauntlet.” The comments reached a crescendo as Boehner objected.
Then Obama backed down, quickly and meekly accepting a different date. Predictably, the comments turned bitter.
The president has done much to disappoint his followers before, most recently in the conflict over the budget. But this incident goes deeper. Those who dismiss it as only so much politics completely miss the point, just as Obama probably did.
On substantive issues, most Americans understand that one can’t always get what he or she wants. While they may not be in favor of compromise, they at least understand it. As time passes and passions cool, it can be explained away, or at least asterisked to obscurity.
In a case like this, though, where only prestige is at stake, the matter is very different. It confirms weakness, and that becomes the lens that every other action is seen through.
Until now, the argument among the president’s supporters was, “He should have fought harder for his principles in XYZ, even though he couldn’t win.” Now the argument becomes, “He’s a wimp. He can’t even say when he wants to speak.”
The latter is far more damaging than the former. And it’s one that any American in the so-called middle, no matter what his or her grasp of the issues happens to be, can instantly understand.
Leadership is obviously much more complicated than simple images would suggest. There are different requirements at different times. And history is filled with examples of men who understood the basics of image-building but were incompetent in other critical areas, be it governing or running an army.
Image is one thing; results quite another.
It’s important to realize that often success depends not on the icons we have in our heads but on the real people who weren’t fortunate enough to catch history’s eye — there’s that argument about Bradley again, who was responsible for much of what Patton is credited with today.
But getting there — projecting the image of a leader and having people follow you, if only off a cliff — is more than half the battle. And if you aren’t adept enough to pick and win relatively minor but tellingly symbolic battles, you haven’t a chance of winning the bigger ones.
Jim DeFelice is the author of Omar Bradley: General at War, to be published this month by Regnery History.