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. Steve

    Melissa June 29th, 2009 3:03 pm ET
    "How can Obama address any of these concerns when Congress will effectively hamstring anything the President tries to pass because they are more concerned with money than anything else?

    I have never seen a more harshly treated President. Ever. And I have been alive to see Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr, Clinton, The Shrub, and now Obama." UNQUOTE ..... My Dear Melissa, the "Shrub" was a U.S. military man AND a U.S. citizen... two things The current usurper cannot testify to.

    June 29, 2009 at 10:10 pm |
  2. Sharon

    Based on the contents of this article and many of these comments, there are way too many people in America (including the media) that are straight-up stupid! Most of you folks don't even know what you are talking about, but just like any fool (educated or not), you still open your mouth! For shame!

    June 29, 2009 at 10:09 pm |
  3. tony

    David G is the new "pitchman" for President Obama, let us not miss the words of fawning affirmation that he "richly" lathers on the new President.

    June 29, 2009 at 10:06 pm |
  4. Aaron

    Our country was designed so that the Congress had the power to enact legislation. Formally, the President merely has the job of seeing that the will of the people (as displayed by Congress) be executed in an efficient manner, thus the name, executive branch. To suggest that he is not doing his job by giving more power to Congress is ridiculous and absurd. By giving more leeway to Congress, Obama is giving power back to politically active individuals. You want something done? Don't beg Obama to do it, write your Senator and your Representative. Do we really want a dictator? No. I voted for Obama because he taught Constitutional Law and he knows what is appropriate for a President to do. All these comments about him being "weak" are merely rhetorical frosting.

    June 29, 2009 at 10:05 pm |
  5. Beth

    In regards to our government,
    Whether we like to admit it or not- we have lost our country to the lobbyists. I have never ever seen our country so divided now and it is up for grabs to the wealthy. I voted for Obama and feel that he is trying to do his best. No other President has had so much on his plate so early. At the same time, I am about to give up on a country that use to work together for the "good of the people". Now it is the left or the right fighting and the war continues. No wonder nothing gets done! Has anyone ever seen what it takes to get a bill out of committee? I am worried about our country. One can see how divided we are as a nation- reading the above emails Debate is healthy but continued division isn't. I think all of us need to view what is the most important and try to compromise or we will go down. A house divided will not stand.

    June 29, 2009 at 10:04 pm |
  6. daisyInAtlanta

    Weak. What is 'weak'? Meddling with other country sovereignty with the taxpayers' money is considered as 'strong'. When will GOP understand we should respect other people country on their internal affairs, right or wrong. Only their citizens can determine the fate of their country. Not us.

    June 29, 2009 at 10:04 pm |
  7. 9corona

    Gergen – two bad press reviews do not constitute news (this is the presidency we are talking about – not a Broadway play).... I voted for him (crossing party lines) and I look forward to 2010 – I will make it a point to vote out the incumbents in the primaries – if they win their primaries I will cross party lines in the general election to vote them out.

    This is not a democrat or republican issue – this issue is about a group of men and women who have spent too much time in D.C. and think it's o.k. to cheat on their spouses, accept bribes, listen to lobbyists instead of the American's who elected them, they have forgotten who they serve. ( After the stimulus last minute amendment to allow the bonuses – why wouldn't anyone of these "Representative's" stand up and ask for more time to read a 300 page amendment added in the dark of night......first time, shame on you – second time, shame on me...the word's of the WHO, "I won't get Fooled AGAIN"....)

    It's sad that you seem to think I am concerned about President Obama's popularity abroad – even sadder I wasted time to respond.

    June 29, 2009 at 10:04 pm |
  8. J3 Cub Pilot

    The guy is basically swimming up-stream with about 5 anchors around his neck. And those "anchors" were either created by Republicans or increased in size due to Republican neglect.
    Amazingly, Obama is actually making some progress, despite the spiteful and disagreeable Party Of No trying their best to impede him.
    I don't expect the "Family Values" party to support him.....they're too busy thinking of trips to Argentina or listening to their drug-addicted "leader" on AM radio.
    But polls show that the majority of average, moderate Americans can see that this is a smart, decent guy who doing a great job.
    If we can get at least 20 or more years of Democratic leadership, the country may be able to get behind all the damage Republicans have done to this country.
    Plus it will force the Republican party to be more responsive to normal Americans and to start ignoring the nutty ones that are leading it right now.

    June 29, 2009 at 10:02 pm |
  9. Steve

    When the Cap and TAX bill passes, it will be far more beneficial for us (me) lower middle class people to quit working, do the welfare thing, and let all you rich (upper to middle – middle class) folks support my family. I thank you all in advance for helping raise my kids since I can no longer afford to.

    June 29, 2009 at 10:01 pm |
  10. NYU Democrat

    Also I wish everyone would drop the stupid "liberal media" byte. It only shows how ignorant you are.

    June 29, 2009 at 10:00 pm |
  11. Gee

    Obama is a complete wus. Would not stand up to the Iranian dictator as innocent people are slaughter, but will defend a Socialist who is trying to take over the Honduran govt. He just wants to buddy up with Chavez, Castro, and the nut case in Iran..

    June 29, 2009 at 10:00 pm |
  12. Carl Cliche


    You pander too much for any real credibility. This president (amateur) is delusional, naive, not very well informed and a lot dishonest. Honest critique of him would be more helpful to his hoped for success. I travel a lot and follow a lot. I don't hear any good words for Emperor Obama except from some of the elite press. Honesty would be helpful to all and especially those who pay the bills; and, I don't mean Congress or Obama.

    June 29, 2009 at 9:59 pm |
  13. NYU Democrat

    You guys realize its only been 6 months? Were you expecting Obama to move mountains in this short a time? Things take time to stabilize, time to be reformed. I think America's addiction to instant gratification shows strongly here.

    June 29, 2009 at 9:57 pm |
  14. Estelle

    I support Obama. If we kept doing things the same way as the last administration the results would have been even worse. He's had to wade knee deep through the mess that was left behind. How soon we forget.Give him a chance.

    June 29, 2009 at 9:57 pm |
  15. Tom

    Didn't vote for Obama but he is my President and at least he is trying to get something done. The question is why do we not have have term limits, like the President, for all other elected officials in goverment. We do not need professional politicians that are worried about their ass, but willing to do the right things. I would like to throw everyone out and start over with a goverment that works. The President is not the problem but our other elected officials who do nothing but complain with no solutions except pork spending.

    June 29, 2009 at 9:57 pm |
  16. Fernando

    Not sure why Obama thinks it's his job to "give us the right to choose our own doctor." The man is trying to pass too many radical bills all at the same time. Congress should also be limited in the length of its bills. When they reach 1000s of pages and give impossible deadlines (to read the bill), they do nobody good. All politicians who subscribe to this "write a massive bill, hide stuff in it, and give ourselves and out" should be hauled off to jail.

    June 29, 2009 at 9:56 pm |
  17. will

    What global temperature fluctuations ??????

    June 29, 2009 at 9:56 pm |
  18. Richard MArks

    GOOD!!! There is still time to block much if not all of the socialist agenda of da'Obamaman. As for other things, has anyone noticed that he is just George W. Bush (with a tan)? Same no-win wars, same spy programs on Americans. Someone should just mail da'Obamaman a copy of the Constitution. Especially the 10th Amendment. We are no longer going to follow illegal and unconstitutional nonsense. Pass away. Pass any ridiculous bs you want. If it's unconstitutional, it'll be IGNORED!

    June 29, 2009 at 9:56 pm |
  19. John

    This nation is in sad shape and not even Obama the one who walks on water can save it from its selfish nature.

    June 29, 2009 at 9:55 pm |
  20. Tom

    Comrade Obama, in his first 6 months, has boldly taken our country where it has never gone before ... suffocating debt. He has diminished our country in the eyes of the world with his continual apologies. He has lectured us (along with his attorney general) as if we were children. He is creating a generation of people with their hands out wanting something from the government. He is slowly destroying the "can do" attitude of the American people. He is leading us down the path to socialism. I don't know which surprises me more ... that CNN actually posted this article or the Europeans don't love him.

    June 29, 2009 at 9:55 pm |
  21. Dan

    Could you just bend over a little bit further? I don't think your butt is sticking up high enough...

    He has been terrible so far. Do we really have 3 more years of this crap?

    June 29, 2009 at 9:54 pm |
  22. John

    People want change until they hear the details of Obama's hairbrained schemes. Spending trillions on 'stimulus' in order to 'create or save millions of jobs' while predicting unemployment would peak at 9% has worked out real well as we just passed 9.6% unemployment and are on our way to 11%. Spending trillions on a scheme to mitigate climate change a non-existant problem to start with and has no hope of succeeding is shear insanity. Spending trillions to contain the spiraling costs of health care is equally insane. The Federal government already controls Medicare, Medicaid, Gov't Employees and Veterans healthcare.

    My advice to Obama is to try out his healthcare "cost containment schemes" on existing Federal programs, show us how they work and then let's talk about how they might be applied to the public sector. There's absolutely no need for big bang healthcare reform other than to further bloat the Federal bureaucracy.

    June 29, 2009 at 9:50 pm |
  23. Eric-30m-D-PA

    Maybe YOU (CNN) think it's jarring that people are not too fond of Obama. His poll numbers are not higher than those in the last decade. I don't know where you got those numbers from. His poll numbers are above average according to Gallup. Get with it and get out of the tank.

    June 29, 2009 at 9:50 pm |
  24. Former Democrat

    Obama is weak and he is no friend to democracy – in Iran he defers and waits and finally jumps to get in on the right side. In Honduras, where the Army was following the orders of the Supreme Court to uphold a country's constitution, we find our President lining up with Chavez and Castro on the side of a dictator. Where is the news coverage on the EPA's staff memo calling global warming into? Perhaps Gergen believes two (or three or four) defenses are in order. Heaven forbid a sitting President should have to defend himself.

    June 29, 2009 at 9:49 pm |
  25. Henry

    Mr Gergen is one of the people who would normally say that US Presidents don't need to be concerned with what Foreigners think, wouldn't he? Curious he is so concerned now.

    June 29, 2009 at 9:49 pm |
  26. Ted K

    What can you expect from a man who seals the records on his college grades, how he funded his way through two highly expensive colleges and will not reveal the names of his donors. To me, it seems like he is hiding something. An honest person would not object to revealing his past.

    June 29, 2009 at 9:49 pm |
  27. Jesse

    "Two defenses of Obama seem in order." Of course they seem in order for a journalist fawning in the lap of this impotent president. The media has become a joke.

    June 29, 2009 at 9:49 pm |
  28. Mary Grant

    Since Obama was voted President, I have heard more nasty racist remarks than ever. I live in Georgia and all they talk about is buying guns because the fear that people of color will be treated "fairly" and that terrifies people. Actually, it has gotten worse since Obama was elected and he spends to much time worrying about people thinking they he favorites "Afro Americans", when the truth we have benefitted less than anyone. Fifteen percent unemployment for African Americans isn't anything to brag about. Of course, I live in a time warp in the South.

    Conservatives are the most incompassionate people I have ever seen. With all the "God fearing" they preach, they really are not very socially conscience regarding humans. I see people who cares more for animals (I love animals too, but I also love the elderly) than people. I paid taxes for many things I did not like in the Bush administration (wars....wars....wars) and they did not seem to care about what my wishes were so, now, these same people should be more tolerant and stop the hypocrital whining about the President wanting to help people. Our gap in wealth has increased in the last 8 years. I am a college graduate and I seem to have stood still in the last 8 years.

    Maybe we can all be a little more socially conscious (not the "S" word, socialism) but socially conscious of the elderly, handicapped and any hard working American who has run into hard times.

    June 29, 2009 at 9:48 pm |
  29. Jonathan

    Ahh, once again the web postings are dominated by those who made up their minds somtime in 2005 and haven't changed their tune. First, the Economist and Financial Times, while right of center, have long championed actions to take on climate change and in fact advocate taxing carbon directly and have also supported alternative energy sources. As for Iran, we know that our leverage there is limited, just ask John Bolton and George Bush. $500 million toward regime change since 2001 and the Mullahs are still there, just like Castro is still there after 50 years of advocating "regime change". Want Iran to collapse? Get yourself some solar panels, give up your V8, turn the heat down to 68, the ac up to 76 and watch the Mullahs get overthrown. But no, that's too hard for us here. Much easier to send our army half way around the world, right? Funny how those who would support sacrifice on foreign fields find some compromise at home intolerable.

    June 29, 2009 at 9:48 pm |
  30. Syb

    A country divided in the middle like the United States will always find it hard to make progress regardless of what major issues are facing it. When there is a 50-50 split, while some might have a workable vision and try to push forward, to the rest, status quo etc, fear might prevail, forcing those most likely to lose in the short term to drag everyone back with them. IN the end nothing is achieved, but the nation slips back as infrastructure breaks down, health care worses, and less people are educated. Wake up America, the country is falling behind.

    Eight years from now, Americans might look back and thank this adminstration, because at least they will be able to assess and tell how some of the enacted legislation impacted thier lives, if the environmental and health bills are passed that is.

    June 29, 2009 at 9:46 pm |
  31. D.

    tom wrote, "Who exactly is ‘defending’ the president. I know CNN is a liberal media outlet, but surely even you liberals with some common sense would agree our media is way to slanted in favor or against our governemnt. This will surely be big factor in the downfall of America. The media needs to be un-biased…period."
    I think the problem with the media is that they're cowering (perhaps with good reasons) to the pressure of Fox News. What they fail to say is that Fox News is 24 hour propaganda. When the mainstream news media try to stay in the middle they're called liberal by the likes of Hannity, O'reilly, Limbaugh, Beck, and other right wing nuts. The problem is, we live in a society where the loudest voices are passed for truths.

    June 29, 2009 at 9:45 pm |
  32. n8ive

    Obama is failing us. i did not vote for him and glad i didn't.

    June 29, 2009 at 9:44 pm |
  33. Bob

    Melissa, did you REALLY say

    "I have never seen a more harshly treated President. Ever. And I have been alive to see Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr, Clinton, The Shrub, and now Obama."


    Seriously??? You don't think our last President got worse treatment???

    Obama is being treated with kid gloves and given softballs to hit by virtually everyone. When he gets a tough question he just walks (or jogs) away and nobody challenges him on it.

    To say that Obama is being treated harshly is simply and utterly ridiculous, and shows you have NO objectivity whatsoever.

    June 29, 2009 at 9:44 pm |
  34. Dimslie

    Gergen, Gergen. From conservative to commie.

    June 29, 2009 at 9:43 pm |
  35. egith holmes

    gee, what a surprise! Gergen is lavishing praise on Obama. Again. Gergen is a complete Obama toady and hasn't provided any useful analysis since beginning his post as Head Presidential Cheerleader. Not a shred of objectivity left – how does he survive in the business?

    June 29, 2009 at 9:43 pm |
  36. Rob E.Lee- Arlington, VA

    It's about time that America has awaken from its stupidity to allow Barrack Hussein Obama to become our 44th President. It is nice to see that there some news organizations recognize BO's poor leadership.

    This guy makes Bill Clinton look acceptable and Bill was impeached.

    We American's should tke a lesson from the Iranians and stand up against the fraudulant election of November 4th, 2008.

    This Saturday July 4th – our Independendence Day, please take a moment to reflect on all of your Freedoms that the Democrats want to take away from you: Healthcare, Limited Taxes, Energy & Happiness.

    Let's take America back.

    June 29, 2009 at 9:41 pm |
  37. JJ

    Genesis Slaughter: Anyone who makes a reasoned critique of President Obama is guilty of "bigotry"? Wow. That's one way to silence the dissent, but hardly democratic, liberal, or reasonable. Please read George Orwell's Animal Farm before your next posting.

    June 29, 2009 at 9:40 pm |
  38. Paul

    Mr. Gergen:

    Is it not Obama who is insisting that huge bills be rushed through Congress without even enough time for the legislators to read what's in them?

    What do you expect to get, if not a massive pork-laden bill?

    June 29, 2009 at 9:40 pm |
  39. Bob

    Why is this news so "jarring"? Did you really believe Obama's numbers would continue to be as high as they were?

    Obama got elected on emotion and hype rather than objectivity, so it is absolutely no surprise to me whatsoever that people are starting to see the issues with his leadership. As you would imagine, those closest to him (and Obamabots in general) will be the LAST ones to see a problem due to their huge emotional investment, but those more objective are already starting to see issues.

    To repeat, no surprises here. It's just that some Obama groupies refuse to believe how anyone could NOT see Obama as "above all of us, almost like a god" (per one reporter's phrasing). Most people are more objective.

    June 29, 2009 at 9:40 pm |
  40. Chas

    Jim Hanson has an excellent track record over 25 years? Please name some major predictions Hanson has made and been correct on. If you can't, then stop repeating the nonsense you hear from his like.

    June 29, 2009 at 9:40 pm |
  41. Felix Andrew

    I have always considered David Gergen as a right of center guy. So, how come he has become a proponent of progressive issues like Climate change, Health Care, and other legislation? These conservatives are becoming unprincipled in their opposition. They oppose the president both from the right and left.

    June 29, 2009 at 9:40 pm |
  42. Brem

    Find out who Obama really is............

    Google this...............

    Barack Obama + Raila Odinga

    June 29, 2009 at 9:39 pm |
  43. Mike

    Honestly, I don't think any one U.S. President is capable to making any type of change, unless the public is welling to follow. We as the people speak above all. If Obama tells you to do something, but you don't give a hoot, the policy is going no where. Just by looking at some of the comments here, I don't think we are moving anywhere soon.

    June 29, 2009 at 9:39 pm |
  44. Chris

    It sounds like the republican puppets have all of their talking points in order.

    Obama is doing just fine, and I look forward to 7 1/2 years more of the same.

    June 29, 2009 at 9:38 pm |
  45. timmer

    BO is getting critiscm the old fashioned way–he eaaaarned it! My gosh, whatever Bush did he was lambasted for it ...even on the few things he got right! How dare someone criticize the POTUS–that takes.....um...er,,,,,,um....for lack of a better word,,,,,,,AUDACITY!!
    In any event, BO doesnt care about those 2 rags, he has plenty of poll data to keep him occupado...

    June 29, 2009 at 9:38 pm |
  46. dave

    yeah only 3/12 more years and then we can laugh at the Republicans even more than we did this time. The rep are a dying breed.

    Republican comedy show:

    Rush Limbauh, Bill Oreilly, Glen Beck, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Ann Coulter, John McCain, Tim Pawlenty, Dick Cheney & his daughter. etc, etc.

    I honestly feel sorry for the republican party. They have nothing to look forward to.

    June 29, 2009 at 9:36 pm |
  47. jonnycotton

    this is great.. FINALLY one of these articles has people responding to the sad truth that obama is inept, and has no business leading the country. his presidency was doomed from the beginning.. the media will slowly realize they put a hack into office, just as the general US population is slowly realizing as well..

    June 29, 2009 at 9:36 pm |
  48. dave

    jim in florida you are incorrect about everything you said.

    June 29, 2009 at 9:30 pm |
  49. dwalla

    look at the author, a former advisor to president clinton...... enough said

    June 29, 2009 at 9:29 pm |
  50. andy

    read the constitution – the congress writes legislation, not the executive branch

    June 29, 2009 at 9:28 pm |
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