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Does Obama lead when he does not speak?

By Elvin Lim


When the dust settles on the history of the Obama presidency, a major theme historians will have to consider and explain, is the startling contrast in his record in domestic policy versus his successes in foreign policy, which now include the assassination of Bin Laden and the toppling of Qaddafi. To put the matter in another way: if 2012 were 2004, and Obama would be judged purely on his foreign policy alone, he wouldn’t have to be doing any bus tours in the battleground states now.

I’m going to hazard a few hypotheses here to highlight the paradoxes of contemporary American politics. Only four years ago, Democrats were afraid that candidate Obama lacked the knowledge and the experience to take on the complex issues of the world — a reason why Hillary Clinton was the presumed frontrunner. At the time, Obama drew sharp contrasts between himself and the Bush administration, essentially portraying himself as a kindler and gentler ambassador to the world rather than the abrasive tough-talking cowboy that his predecessor was. Also, at the time, it was thought that Obama’s strong suit was what he would bring to the domestic policy-making table in substance (health-care reform) and style (bi- or post-partisanship). None of these expectations turned out to be accurate.

As it turns out, you don’t really need all that much experience to have a successful foreign policy. Ronald Reagan didn’t, and neither did Barack Obama. What mattered was that they were able to appoint personnel to get the job done. Delegation works when the President operates as Commander-in-Chief, when he does not need to negotiate with Congress or convince errant blue-dog Democrats yapping at his side. Call it what you will: “Leading from behind,” engaging with the world, reasoning based on evidence, or hiring Hillary Clinton — it has clearly worked. But another reason for why Obama’s record on foreign policy isn’t the topic of most Republican candidates’ talking points is that it really isn’t all that different from Bush’s. He hasn’t had to draw a line in the sand between a Democratic or a Republican approach. The tone and the execution may have been better, but in its essentials, such as the unilateral use of force (and especially predator drones), a preemptive presumption in favor of democracy, and a realist approach to “enemy combatants” (and Guantanamo Bay), the two administrations have not been all that different.

A gentler style and tone directed at the rest of the world may well be productive for the Commander-in-Chief, but it appears to have done nothing for the President at home. We may soon have to consider the grand irony that a person brought in to reconcile differences and to put red and blue states together has actually been spectacularly bad at doing so. It is almost as if it is precisely in those areas where Obama does not need to open his mouth to convince either side that he has met with the most success. That is to say, Obama has been most successful when he has been unilateral, picking and choosing what works and what does not and not really having to sell his selection to either party. And he has been the least successful when he has attempted to be persuasive, pragmatic and deliberative, trying so hard in town hall meeting after meeting to sell his domestic program — the putative virtues he brought to the political table in 2008, no less.

Talk works in campaigns, but it appears perfunctory for the successful conduct of foreign policy and practically counter-productive when it comes to selling the president’s domestic agenda. To be sure, the president is back on the road. But it is very likely, given the uncompromising Republican stance on raising taxes, that the speeches will be more effective in drumming political support for the president that it will be for his jobs plan. But this shouldn’t be so surprising. We hire our presidents on the basis of their ability to talk, not their ability to govern. There is no real test for the latter until it actually happens. However counter-intuitive this may sound, the very stark contrast in Obama’s leadership on foreign versus domestic policy strongly suggests that talking has much less to do with governing than our infotainment culture insists it does.

Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.

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