June 29th, 2009
02:39 PM ET

Questions about Obama’s leadership

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/POLITICS/06/25/obama.energy/art.obama.garden.gi.jpg]

David Gergen | Bio
AC360° Contributor
CNN Senior Political Analyst

Across America and much of the world, opinion of Barack Obama as president continues at levels rarely seen in recent decades. Sure, there has been sniping from the right and a little slippage in the polls, but mainstream opinion – both in the polls and the press – has generally been lavish in praise.

That is why it has been jarring to read two of the most influential and mainstream newspapers in the world over the past few days, both of them harshly critical.

In editorials, columns and news stories on Saturday and again this morning, the Financial Times castigates the President for passive leadership. Among the headlines: “President Obama needs to lead”; “Obama is choosing to be weak”; “Cap-and-trade mess”; and “Punch-drunk Obama needs middle way on Tehran”. Meanwhile, the Economist spoke out in its new issue with a full-page column entitled, “The senator-in-chief: Barack Obama is too deferential to his former colleagues on Capitol Hill”.

The essence of their argument about his domestic leadership is that the President has assigned out to Congress primary responsibility for writing major legislative bills and then has stood by passively as the bills have been so watered down or become so flawed that they fall far short of what is needed.

While celebrating that the House has just passed the first bill in its history that would put mandatory caps on carbon dioxide, for example, Europeans and others overseas worry that the U.S. is once again moving too timidly on greenhouse gases. Once-in-a-lifetime chances for reform are being squandered, in their view. Even liberal columnist E.J. Dionne echoes some of these concerns today in the Washington Post. While he prefers Obama’s approach to the Clintons’ on health care, he argues that Obama should now intervene more assertively as Congress wrestles with the reforms.

What should we make of these criticisms and questions from sources who have typically been friendly toward this President and the U.S.?

Two defenses of President Obama seem in order:

First, we should recognize that the politics of change are extraordinarily hard so that some degree of compromise is essential to get major reforms passed these days. The energy-climate bill was supposed to pass the House with ease but in the event, won by only seven votes. And it would have gone down to defeat had not Congressmen Henry Waxman and Ed Markey made some concessions to “Brown Democrats” from coal-reliant states. As it is, the bill now faces a long, tough, uphill fight in the Senate.

Second, President Obama is bringing an unusual leadership style to the Oval Office – leaving much more latitude to Congress than his predecessors – but at least he is breaking through the paralysis that has gripped Washington in recent years. The stimulus package, health care for more children, the energy-climate bill, the prospect of some form of health reform – all of this might have been impossible without Obama. It is worth remembering that when the Clintons tried a much more ambitious reform of health care in the 1990s, the bill never even made it out of committee in a Democratic Congress.

So, let us give the credit to President Obama that he richly deserves.

Yet, these articles appearing in the international press deserve consideration, too. The truth is that as historic as the energy-climate bill is, it does not adequately address the rapidly escalating threat of global warming. Alarm bells are now going off among scientists studying climate change as they see signs it is escalating much more rapidly than expected.

If you want to read a scary piece about where we may be heading, check out the profile of scientist Jim Hansen in the current issue of The New Yorker. For more than a quarter century, Hansen has had an excellent track record in his predictions – and he is now so worried that he thinks the energy-climate bill that just passed the House is useless. Scrap it and start over, he urges. Those who know a lot about health care worry that in a parallel fashion, Congress may pass a reform bill so flawed that it will be illusory as well.

What all this suggests is that the White House has been right to press for reform but it is equally important to get the reform right. The country has not had a full, vigorous debate on these big reforms like climate and health care. That is partly because the press, for a variety of reasons, has not given them the attention they deserve. But it is also because the White House, trying to pursue so many issues simultaneously, has not been to focus on any one of them very long. And let’s face it: the President himself has not tried to fight the Congress on key questions. If anything, he and his team are eager not to draw lines in the sand.

It is too early to judge whether the President’s leadership style will ultimately prove to be a major breakthrough for the country or whether it will bring changes that disappoint. One continues to have great hope for the President. But it is not too early to have a more vigorous debate about where these reforms are taking us. And for that, we should also welcome this questioning from our friends.

soundoff (140 Responses)
  1. abr

    Regardless of what I believe or my political standpoint
    being critical is key.. it cant all be good...right?
    it is vital that we hear complaints and newspapers need to write critical pieces on Obama, his decisions, and whatever.
    I do believe however that I wouldnt want to live in a country where my President couldnt be questioned or critiqued.
    Its good- oh and we need more of it! dah?

    June 30, 2009 at 10:16 am |
  2. IndyVoter

    The Legislature's job is to draft legisltation – make laws. The President's job is to ADMINISTER and EXECUTE the laws that the Legislature makes. The President can suggest that the Legislature draft certain laws and he can appeal to the American public to help push the Congress in the way that he would like them to go (incidentally, he get criticized for doing just that, by people saying he's in perpetual campaign mode). His job is not to TELL Congress what to do and how to do it (Remember that little balance of power thing?). Jeesh, we need a Civics 101 class for the entire nation, especially the press corp! Obama is doing a great job! Stop trying to find fault. The financial gurus and energy moguls are crying fowl now because they know that they're time is up! Change has come and it is a whole heap of alot better than what we've have the last 8 years!!

    Thank you President Obama. Keep doing what you are doing!

    June 30, 2009 at 10:15 am |
  3. S Callahan

    I am dismayed with his stance at present...
    He came in with a bowl full of ideas that now sit on a teaspoon.
    He is sacraficing his convictions for 'friendship' and that is the true test of a man....it's early yet...perhaps a good nights sleep and some prayer on his knees will put this back in perspective.
    I'm glad the media is now taking the courage to challenge things...question things...nothing is really status quo..it's just a perception.

    June 30, 2009 at 10:12 am |
  4. Melissa

    *sighs* 5 months into Bush's term, he was still getting his butt kissed by everyone. 5 months into Obama's term and people are being jerks.

    There is a difference.

    Yes, Bush got called a traitor and worse BECAUSE HE WAS ONE. But he didn't get called that until his second term. Obama has been in office 5 months and doomsayers won't shut up about how horrible he is because he isn't kissing their butt.

    June 30, 2009 at 10:08 am |
  5. Ted

    Our country was at the brink of total disaster just a few months ago. President Obama has stayed cool and in control and has brought about enormous change and confidence in such a short time. I am happy that I voted for him and hope to continue to support him for the next eight years.

    June 30, 2009 at 10:00 am |
  6. C. Bass

    Weak is cheating on your wife.

    Weak is our political leaders making racist jokes and not being able to maintain a sense of professionalism.

    Weak is apoligizing to radio personalities for disagreeing with them.

    Weak is the fearful of this country picking up their guns and becoming domestic terrorists.

    Weak is not being able to have your own opinion and just regergitating talking points.

    Weak is torturing somebody because you hate them.

    Weak is not progressing in eight years.

    June 30, 2009 at 9:35 am |

    I am so sick of people saying that us conservatives are "angry and scared" (of a Black President) because we are critical of this President. I promise you, we are not scared of his race. If you really knew the conservative mentality, You would understand that we only want one thing..."a preservation of the Union as we know it." NO, that doesn't mean any racist past. We acknowledge it, along with acknowledging that the WHOLE WORLD has a racist past. We want to keep this system of government that produces freedom and opportunity EVEN for those who did not have it when it began 200 years ago.

    I have a message for anyone who takes this point of view. Please refrain from your hate towards me for just a second and think about this:

    I realize you are angry at the past this country has. It is a past that it shares with the rest of the world, and it has come (and still is work in progress) out of that past. BUT be careful who and what you support, because this American Dream that you are aggresively pursuing and your ancestors and your people were kept from, is fragile. If we are not careful in that pursuit, you might find that when you get there...it has vanished...from all of us.

    Please think about that for a bit.

    June 30, 2009 at 9:29 am |
  8. Rick McDaniel / Lewisville, TX

    Sorry, but I find too many things that I am concerned about, including the federal deficit.

    In the end though, jobs will be the one single thing, that Obama will be measured by, and based on the jobs that have been lost, with almost none created, that measure may get very critical, very soon.

    I am also very disappointed, that after saving the major banks, there seems to be no one watching the store, as the management continues to demonstrate wasteful compensation to management, and an arrogance in behavior, that is rather incredible. We have to question whether saving them, was really good for the country.

    June 30, 2009 at 9:26 am |
  9. Reggie Hammond

    After inheriting a non-fllushed commode. I think the guy is doing pretty well. I think people should understand that leaders lead in different ways and Barack Obama is leading in his way...Remember he won!

    June 30, 2009 at 9:16 am |
  10. mj

    GDK – thanks for your comment. it seems to be the pattern that if someone does not like or disagrees with this administration that they must be racist. sure there are some that feel that way but the majority arre disgusted with the direrction this country is taking and the lack of real leadership and and agenda of spending and tasixing that defies description.

    June 30, 2009 at 8:56 am |
  11. audrey in va

    Obama's response to North Korea and Iran is the same it was to the Russian/Georgia conflict last summer during the campaign... do nothing for a few days until he sees the polls about where public opinion stands on the issue. He seems very uncomfortable when it comes to leading foreign policy. God forbid we are attacked, because we know Obama will not act swiftly and decisively. Wish we had a real leader in the WH.

    June 30, 2009 at 8:51 am |
  12. olando

    I personally think he's the right guy for the job. I know everyone is worried about the deficit crisist which as largely impact mind set and our wallets. I'm jsut 17yrs old and think it won't hurt if we make quality investments in our infrastructure. I live in hartford ,connecticut and i can tell you it's a shame to see the deteriorating streets, drains, and utility pose.
    Just 3weeks back around the corner from were i live the top of a utility pose broke off in the road and cause an accident. When i look a the pose I can see that it was rotton(deteriorated)

    Is it safe to say that most americans would rather no deficit at all than having safe bridges, roads, sewers, and electric grid which have been around since THE 1950s!!!! We are now in 2009!!!

    June 30, 2009 at 7:55 am |
  13. Fred

    It's no wonder that Obama is relying on Congress to draft legislation. The last President in essence told Congress they were irrelevant. Obama will not get any reform legislation through Congress unless he lets them actively participate in the process.

    June 30, 2009 at 6:50 am |
  14. Brian

    If President Obama TRULY wanted a big drop in 'greenhouse gases', he'd champion a program to replace all of the coal-fired power plants with nuclear plants that reprocess their fuel, as is done in France (85% of their grid is nuclear and no greenhouse gas production), which could wean us off OPEC, create a LOT of REAL jobs and make carbon-free electric cars a realistic option; if President Obama wanted to help our citizenry with health care, he would sign legislation to stop 'nuisance' lawsuits and encourage Medical Savings Accounts. HOWEVER, his campaign supporters in the Environmental and Trial Lawyer communities would likely pull their support from him in 2012. During his recent 'Health' TV Special on ABC, he was asked if HIS healthcare plan would be a part of the new legislation that he was proposing for the rest of the US population, and he waffled. THE MORE THINGS CHANGE, THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME.

    June 30, 2009 at 2:33 am |
  15. Chris

    It's funny that Obama preceded the most criticized President in recent memory.. yet nobody wants to turn the magnifying glass on him?

    I'm a white, middle-class conservative who rides his bike to work (by choice), doesn't own a gun (by choice) and is all for gay marriage (again, by choice). If you guys can't understand that check-and-balance is crucial for our government, and that stereotypes don't apply across the board, we're doomed.

    You don't have to be one or the other, you just need to look at both sides of the argument. Political journalists are no longer doing this, and some of you are no longer doing your homework.

    Read something you disagree with- it might be enlightening.

    June 30, 2009 at 2:27 am |
  16. Dee - Rochester, NY

    Dear Mr. Gergen,

    Good article. Your political and moral compass always speaks truth to power. Those so-called venerable media outlets you mentioned along with the European critics are used ot the old style of American presidents. Obama has not only inherited a plethora of problems, but he is also conducting a clean-up along with rolling out new initiatives on climate change, healthcare and the like.

    The REpubs are chomping for less governent intervention so they can resume their stream of income and to hell withthe rest of folks. Well, keep chomping. I am an independent and can wait longer than 6 months for the nation to turnaround.

    Financial TImes, Economist, cut the president some slack. Is your readership so low you have to invent problems to increase your readership?

    June 30, 2009 at 2:22 am |
  17. brendan

    Jimmy Carter : the Iranian Revolution, passiveness during the Iran Contra, sky high oil prices, enlarged, inefficient,and non effective government programs, environmental protection laws that stifle economic growth, the death of Elvis the King of Rock and Roll from pills.

    Barack Obama: the Iranian Revolution, passiveness during the Iran crackdown on dissent, sky high oil prices enlarged, inefficient, and non effective government programs, environmental protections laws, the death of Michael Jackson from possibly px pills.

    June 30, 2009 at 2:20 am |
  18. kenneth

    it's funny how these polls seem to be in his favor,liberal polls i guess.
    i never participated in such polls,david.i guess thats because my opinnion of mr. obama is less than stellar.

    June 30, 2009 at 2:13 am |
  19. Granny Nerd

    There's that old Peter Principle - that people rise to the level of their incompetence. I stand by Obama and his leadership style. Before I retired, I had risen to the level of my incompetence....but I had a wonderful, wonderful staff who, when left on their own without miromanagement by me, developed great programs and ideas. Maybe this Congress will realize that Obama is not meddling in their constitutional duties. They will straighten up if he keeps his fingers out of the pie!

    June 30, 2009 at 2:09 am |
  20. curt Campbell

    There are certain things about the Presidency that are learned...One is how to manage the counter-accusations by our enemies..The other is how to interpret what's on the other side of door number three...Door #3? Yes, that's the door every President goes through the day he takes office. On the other side of that door are the answers to who killed Jack Kennedy and whether or not Aliens exist on Planet earth...i think was can all agree that there are definitely Aliens in the Middle East, North Korea and the Langley, Virginia among other places...

    June 30, 2009 at 2:08 am |
  21. GDK

    Some comments here are simply mind boggling. I did not vote for Obama because I did not think he was strong enough/had enough experience. I think what he is doing for America's image is fantastic though. But that and a quarter will get you nothing, as demonstrated by N. Korea and Iran. Now, some of those people that only listened to the media are starting to realize that rhetoric doesn't match experience. To the people that think this is racial...get over it. That is not the reason. It's his ideas, not the color of his skin

    June 29, 2009 at 10:28 pm |
  22. Janice Kuta

    Each week the Obama administration becomes a bigger disappointment. I am surprised about the passive leadership. I understood that he was a conciliator, but didn't understand what that really meant in terms of the domestic agenda. He is obviously better than Bush, but nothing special, as we believed. Less time in press conferences and being interviewed by the talking heads and more time with Congress would serve us all a lot better.

    The appointment of Tim Geithner should have been the red flag that business was as usual. Delegating is good, but strong leadership is what we need. What a disappointment.

    June 29, 2009 at 10:27 pm |
  23. Ted

    Leadership is not voting "present." You got what you voted for...a President that can read a teleprompter and sign the extreme liberal agenda into reality. Unchecked liberalism is a disaster of unintended consequences borne out of emotional decisions without rational discussion. Couple that to a compliant media and you have...disaster.

    June 29, 2009 at 10:25 pm |
  24. Phil

    Obama hasn't really done anything.
    I like that in a Democratic president.

    June 29, 2009 at 10:25 pm |
  25. Diogenes

    Of course he's failed us all.....
    He's made us respected again....
    We've been singing that beatle classic "Loathe me do" far too long...

    June 29, 2009 at 10:25 pm |
  26. Tom

    Well all I can say is that for the first time in my life I am ashamed of my country. The USA no longer stands as a beacon for the oppressed that they may see the hope of Liberty and Freedom. Obama has turned the light out on Iran because he didn't want to meddle and then in Hondorus because he did want to meddle and no one reports it no one questions him on it he gets a pass from the media and we are supposed to believe the media is not biased not a form of Pravda that has destroy the first ammendment? I just don't get it, he illegally fires IG's that are doing their jobs because they find corruption with our tax money but since that corruption involved friends of his and Michelle he gets away with it. His administration illegally supresses EPA studies that show global warming is not man caused and is not a dire threat, He says he won't tax middle class America and then he lauds the Congress when they pass the biggest carbon tax that will effect every American and he denies that it will impact famlies same way that he said unemployemnt would not reach 10 percent and then said we guessed wrong. Guessed wrong. Why is there no true jounalist investigation into these issues. Enough, Obama was not elected with a mandate to do these insane things that the country may never recover from and may bankrupt us.

    June 29, 2009 at 10:24 pm |
  27. Sky

    Our biggest problem in America is not Barack Obama but the delusional thought processes of the conservative's. They will continue to be obstructionists and will continue to put America down. President Obama is showing all of us how to lead but the conservatives have been so bad at for so long they they can't see straight. All you have to do is listen to the right to know just how wrong they are. God bless Barack Obama.

    June 29, 2009 at 10:22 pm |
  28. Mike T

    Um ...I just read that someone said
    "the main reason, if they were truthful, is that he is the first African American President, not to mention one with intellect, and they can’t handle it. They can’t wrap their heads around the realness that African Americans can and do lead! Why do you think that the Republican Party continues to be in opposition? They are still under cover in their bigotry. Fear has a way of gripping the best of them!"

    So, if I am black and I don't like Obama or didn't vote for him then I am a bigot? That is crazy! I am an educated black male graduated top of my class at FSU and an officer in the Armed Forces. I don't like his politics and I don't like that he does a lot of talking and no action. It has nothing to do with color, but everything to do with ACTION.

    I think it is time to stop pulling the race card and give credit when credit is due, but this is definitely not the time for credit..action is needed.

    June 29, 2009 at 10:21 pm |
  29. Aaron

    If I remember my political science class correctly, the legislative branch of our government was designed to be the preeminent branch. Congress should be doing all the work; at least that was the intention of the founders. Obama could certainly be more assertive, but I like his approach. Let Congress screw all this up, then come in with legislation that trumps anything they've done. That's what I would do.

    June 29, 2009 at 10:21 pm |
  30. Trylon

    . . . . . and the only person with all the correct knowledge and answers is Sarah Palin.

    "What time does the next swan leave?" – – asked Robert Benchley, glancing at his wrist watch.

    June 29, 2009 at 10:20 pm |
  31. haas

    You can't have it both ways. On one hand you have people saying he's doing too much and on the other you have people saying he's not leading.

    On Iran: Polls show American's agree with the president on his stand on Iran.

    On Iraq: US forces are pulling out of key cities and Afganistan will start receiving their much needed reinforcements. BTW, even McCain agrees with that.

    On Healthcare: Polls show Americans want a government option.

    On the Economy: Economists agree that the economy is showing signs of recovery and by the end of this year we should be on track for recovery.

    I can go on and on, but our last president couldn't accomplish in 8 years what Obama has done in 6 months. I think the bar has been set so high people forget that the leadership we used to have led us down the wrong path.

    June 29, 2009 at 10:19 pm |
  32. Tristan

    The thing people forget is, President Obama is capable of learning. I agree that he needs to do better. But, just because the last guy didn't learn a thing in 8 years doesn't mean that Obama won't.

    June 29, 2009 at 10:17 pm |
  33. Paul

    Two conservative journals now equals the world press? I think Mr. Gergen is giving these organs' opinions too much weight. And the comments from those on the right in this thread make me ever more glad their views are increasingly marginalized. Thank goodness the grown ups are in charge of the country now.

    June 29, 2009 at 10:17 pm |
  34. gary

    Just because he doesn't gloat like W doesn't define him as weak. On the international front, he's already put himself into the Middle East - something that W didn't do and many of the European Leaders have failed to engage in for DECADES. He handled the pirate issue quietly and with decisiveness. He has made some unpopular choices re:the world economy. They may not have been the best decisions, but at least he's moving forward.

    I believe that remaining reserved on the Iranian front is the correct course of action at present. Rather than let Iranian leaders engage the US as meddling, we're trying to let them implode. I also believe Obama is working with some of Iran's ME peers to present US policy in a more receptive wrapper.

    I am very content with Obama. He's taken on a very shaking situation on a number of fronts. I think he has generally handled it all very well.

    June 29, 2009 at 10:14 pm |
  35. rachelAtlanta

    Criticism. Criticism. It is not easy to be President of the United States. No matter what he does, people always criticize him. Act too fast. Act too slow. Put yourself into President's shoes. What would you do? send troop and beat the crap out of the dictators of Iran and N. Korea. Just say it. You guys can not handle US has the first African American president who can lead and is resilient. By the way, I am not a black. i am just stating a neutral fact. that is ugly.

    June 29, 2009 at 10:14 pm |
  36. Joshua

    Perhaps Mr. Obama rightly feels that the Congress is SUPPOSED to be the preeminent body in the United States government?

    The Founding Fathers quite obviously felt that way as investing an executive with too much power might create a new "King George" on this side of the Atlantic. (Hey that pun works on so many levels!) The President has to lead the country, but why do we expect him to do everything? Do we WANT a King of the US? I personally enjoy Mr. Obama's style of leadership because it recognizes and respects certain fundamental principles of American politics. Everyone in the government should be involved in crafting legislation. He can't have everything he wants. Congress passes the laws, he is merely supposed to administer them.

    June 29, 2009 at 10:13 pm |
  37. Shawn in Orlando

    Obama is a weak leader and it is apparent, people see that so they will write about it. I am glad I saw it before he "won" the election (like Bush, in FL his win excluded voter's votes and the vote did not reflect what the people truly voted so his "win" is questionable) and like with Bush, I can truly say that I did not vote for him.

    June 29, 2009 at 10:13 pm |
  38. Brem

    Obama's Cap and Trade (Energy Bill)

    Do you understand that China, India, etc.--–will NOT have to follow the same rules/regulations as businesses in the US???

    Do you understand that this means that more and more US businesses will begin closing their doors-–and moving to China, India, etc., where they will also not have to follow these rules/regulations??

    Do you understand that Obama does NOT want increased tariffs placed on imports coming in to our country from places such as China, India, etc (where they will not be following the same laws, which will mean that their goods will be cheaper).

    Do you understand that US businesses will NOT be able to compete with these foreign businesses countries that will NOT have to follow the same reguluations??

    June 29, 2009 at 10:12 pm |
  39. KG

    The only thing this man is doing is driving this country into the ground.
    He is spending money that we do not have and our children and grandchildren will still be trying to repay at the end of their lives.
    Those of you who follow him must be lazy, non working, non taxpaying leeches. He rushes bills through Congress with the help of the wicked witch of the West, Pelosi. Together they are disgraceful.
    We should all be ashamed of having let such a person get elected to office and we should begin now to take steps to right this wrong.

    June 29, 2009 at 10:11 pm |
  40. Mike

    Train wreck.

    June 29, 2009 at 10:10 pm |
1 2 3