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Why Obama Lost

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Why Obama Lost

Why did the Democrats do so poorly in last week’s elections in the US?

There are at least three plausible reasons. Topping the list must be the economy – the combination of stubbornly high unemployment rates, sluggish growth and seemingly endless mortgage foreclosures. A weak economy is always bad for the incumbent party.

A second possibility is latent prejudice, For many white, independent voters, the novelty of a non-white president might have worn off, and their prejudice could be covered by excuses such as the economy, out-of-control government finances, and loss of confidence in the policies of the president. They are all legitimate, if not convenient excuses.

Finally, President Obama has failed as a leader.

There is much more to being a leader than spelling out vague visions in beautifully crafted speeches. Eventually, the rhetoric sounds dull and loses its appeal. Actions speak louder than words!

Even abroad, the president’s speeches are beginning to fall flat. For example, Din Syamsuddin, the head of Muhammadiyah, one of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organizations, criticized President Obama’s speech in Indonesia: “His speech in Cairo raised a lot of hopes, but his speech today was repetitive and redundant.”

Moreover, increasingly the president seems to be Zelig-like in his speeches – he tells each audience what it wants to hear, even though he might have said something different to another audience.

To be a great leader, one must not only inspire; one must also convince others that it is important to move from here to there, and that s/he has selected the best “there”. The people must be willing and eager to follow. But this requires that a leader clearly sets out her/his goals so that the people understand where they are going. Furthermore, a leader needs to describe what the best path, to move from here to there, looks like. That is, a leader must describe clearly the policies and timelines needed to move ahead.

President Obama has failed to move beyond the stage of inspiration.

Consider the three major policy initiatives enacted during the first two years of his presidency – the economic stimulus, healthcare reform, and reform of the financial system. I do not even raise energy reform, which never materialized because he did not care enough to fight for it.

In none of these cases did he take the lead and set out his major goals, with the possible exception of universal coverage for healthcare. He effectively outsourced all three policies to Congress.

In the case of the economic stimulus package, it is difficult to highlight two or three major initiatives with longer-term impacts. The package appeared to contain a hodge-podge of measures, largely in the form of pork.

The healthcare legislation evolved as a hydra-like, gigantic creature, incomprehensible to all but a few lawyers and lobbyists. Did Obama really want or believe that the country needed a 2,000 plus page, piece of legislation written in legalese of the highest order?

Financial reform also seemed to follow the same path as healthcare. It wasn’t till late in the game that Obama came out in favor of the recommendations made by Paul Volcker, and even then, he did not enthusiastically embrace them as his own. Prior to Volcker coming onto the scene, can anyone remember what Obama’s two or three principal objectives were for financial reform?

The resulting legislation is so complex and confusing that no one really understands how it will play out. Court challengers already are underway.

If the president had acted as a leader, then maybe some of the electorate who voted against the Democrats might have forgiven him for the poor state of the economy, and continued to support him and his Party.

Fortunately for the president, there are two years till the next election, and if the economy turns around sufficiently, all might not be lost. However, if he does not begin to show people that he is a leader who stands for something concrete, he might squander the advantage of a strong economy.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.


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