In the wake of Obama’s re-election the Economist sketched out what it anticipated as crucial in the legacy of the 44th American president (American debt, America’s international role and the Arab World). Politicians certainly think about – and are perhaps somewhat obsessed with – what they leave behind. Charismatic leaders can leave a durable mark during their time in office. Others may be remembered for world-changing decisions they made – for better or worse. Still others may yet be recognised for reforms they implemented, the benefits of which may only be reaped down the line.
We expect leaders to anticipate developments and chart a course consistent with long-term national interests. Being able to think ahead in a proactive fashion in spite of direct electoral and partisan considerations is difficult, yet essential. Two types of leadership stand out: one is to get people to act according to what you preach – to inspire actions and change. The other is the ability to foresee changes domestically and internationally and to act upon them ex ante. In other words, leadership encompasses a capacity to lead change from above and to nurture it from below.
Politics is not about consensus. It is about securing sufficient support for policy implementation, which current leaders do not seem overly preoccupied with as long as public support does not wane. Most merely seek to satisfy the electorate and to secure reelection. Hollande and Obama were respectively elected and reelected president of two leading countries in 2012. Hollande’s campaign proposals promised what he could not deliver (no austerity, more civil servants, taxes on the rich and more jobs) unless he prepared the French for necessary sacrifices (reforms of the labour market, social benefits, health care, retirement age and public spending). Obama’s first term began with a grandiloquent speech in Cairo and a Nobel Peace Prize but he has been mired into internal bickering in congress and incapable of acting decisively abroad or at home ever since. On the run up to the 2012 presidential election Obama was sensed to have toned down his discourse on foreign policy issues to secure his re-election. Obama promised to change America’s role in the world, yet he increasingly backs away from international issues to focus on nation building at home.
How can we explain the seeming failure of powerful executives at the head of key countries in a time of crisis? For Obama, the current political situation in the US is no excuse: Truman, Eisenhower and Clinton all battled with unfriendly congresses, yet achieved progress, passed legislation and left a notable legacy. Clinton passed healthcare bills, the nuclear test ban treaty and minor gun legislation. Clinton was also deeply involved in the Middle East peace process and successfully brought about Oslo 1993, although he fell short of durable peace. His legacy is broadly positive, save his personal whereabouts. And yet, he was not spared: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, East Timor, Israel-Palestine, Somalia, Rwanda, and Haiti.
Obama’s situation cannot be accepted as fundamentally different from his predecessors. Yet, with his re-election secured, Guantanamo and gun laws remain unchanged. Moreover, in Israel-Palestine, tacit support of Israeli policies – that contradict UN resolutions, International Law, and US official policy – endures. On the other hand, Obama enacted health care reform, albeit a watered-down version, backed NATO and Europe on Libya, and managed to get rid of bin Laden. But Obama has mostly failed to act beyond rhetoric upon key issues and is certainly not inspiring tomorrow’s changes. He has merely attempted to react strategically to events. Ultimately, that is only half of his job.
The realities of politics can only justify lack of forcefulness to some extent. In 1940, Roosevelt apologised to Churchill for not being able to act upon his demands for ships, weapons and men as the result of upcoming elections. He did not begin heavily supporting the allies until Pearl Harbor in late 1941. Spare approximately fifty American destroyers, support to the British war effort was limited. But he subsequently made up for it! The lend-lease act was a risk run by the US Navy under the threat of Japan in order to supply the British with a broader war arsenal. Meanwhile, Obama does not seem to be willing to run any risk, even under the banner of freedom.
Since being re-elected, Obama has not prioritised calling for an end to settlements in the West Bank and the closure of Guantanamo – in fact these realities are not even listed on his website’s “issues” section. Looking back into modern history, a divided congress, conflicts abroad and concerns for re-election have not tied the hands of former leaders: successful presidents were able to battle in adversity and to achieve regardless of the opposition and circumstances. Immense powers are vested in the American presidency. Yet Obama appears helpless on several important issues for America and for the World. Not so long ago, leaders stood up for what they believed. Thatcher is possibly the best example of a leader achieving what she stood for, remote from consensus which she despised, but loyal to her sense of duty and long-term national interest.
Politicians are neither elected to be feared, nor are they elected to be loved. They are elected to represent and lead. In recent times, they have increasingly failed to do so. The reality is that Hollande and Obama, like the majority of politicians, seem to promise much and achieve little. Perhaps this stems from the hyper-mediatization of politics, the amount of data available, sheer number of analyses they commission and the myriad influences they undergo. But the bottom line is that leaders must take decisions – they must act. Both statesmen could certainly learn from de Gaulle who kept his vision simple: “a man can have friends, a nation never.”
According to the Greek adage, “A statesman is a dead politician.” It seems our political leaders should start acting more like statesmen; they should take a step away from politics in order to be better leaders. If Hollande and Obama followed their countries’ long-term interests and alleviated themselves from low politics, they would indeed become better statesmen. They would inspire from below and lead from above. Hollande lacks charisma and boldness; Obama is charismatic but lacks true grit. He will be remembered as such unless he reacts. Without actions, leaders do not lead; they merely trail on the path of history.