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The Purple Muse

Leadership Failures of Barack Obama

BusinessDictionary.com defines Leadership as follows: "Leadership in an organizational role involves (1) establishing a clear vision, (2) sharing (communicating) that vision with others so that they will follow willingly, (3) providing the information, knowledge, and methods to realize that vision, and (4) coordinating and balancing the conflicting interests of all members or stakeholders. A leader comes to the forefront in case of crisis, and is able to think and act in creative ways in difficult situations. Unlike management, leadership flows from the core of a personality and cannot be taught, although it may be learnt and may be enhanced through coaching or mentoring."

During my corporate career I held a number of positions of leadership and worked for other people that were excellent leaders. All of us worked diligently to be effective leaders by exemplifying the characteristics noted above.  Please note the sentence above that is in bold type.  Leaders step forward to take responsibility during times of crisis.  Leaders step forward and deal with the most critical issues that impact the organization they are leading.  When the environment is toughest leaders step forward and think and act in creative ways.

Is US President Barack Obama a leader that meets the definition above?  I suggest that our President is not a successful leader or not an effective leader.  On the most important issue of our times President Obama has failed to lead our nation.

Obama has been an effective advocate for causes he believes are right when his party has had total control of the US government.  The 2009/2010 debate on Health Care Reform was an example of Obama effectively advocating for a cause.  He ignored a lot of the facts surrounding Health Care Reform but actively supported it becoming law regardless of its long term financial impact on the country or the overall economic environment.  Obama was a terrific advocate for Health Care Reform but he didn't demonstrate effective leadership.

Obama recently made the decision for the US military to participate in establishing a no fly zone in Libya in response to military actions by Libya's leader, Muammar Gaddafi, against his own citizens.  The statements made by Obama, Obama's cabinet officials and other members of his administration regarding the justification of the military action are conflicting.  There is no doubt that President Obama did not establish a clear vision for his team and the American people as to why and to what extent the US was participating in the Libyan conflict.  This is the first significant military action that is totally the responsibility of President Obama.  One can debate the merits of US participation in the Libyan action.  One can debate the timeliness of various actions related to the action.  Those topics are not the subject of this article.  What is clear is that a key element of leadership was missing

A couple of weeks ago President Obama held a press conference and he responded to a number of questions from the attending media.  Obama was asked a question about the US fiscal deficit.  I watched the President answer the question in real time.  The President responded by very accurately describing the fiscal problems of the US government and the fundamental issues that need to be addressed.  Obama's response was one of the most succinct and accurate answers that I have ever heard to this type of question.  The President clearly understood the problem and what areas of the US budget had to be addressed.  There was not doubt that he intellectually grasped the problem.

The US fiscal problems didn't just appear in 2011.  US fiscal problems have been building at a significant rate for at least a decade.  A number of experts have been warning that the US would eventually put itself in its current position decades ago.  The US government deficits currently represent over 40 percent of US spending.  We have trillion dollar annual deficits as far as we can see into the future.  The US government has created long term obligations in a variety of programs that total in the tens of trillions of dollars that are impossible to deliver.  Virtually all economic experts agree that the financial path of the US is unsustainable.  The US government is effectively bankrupt.

On February 18, 2010, President Obama created by executive order The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.  The President showed good leadership by giving this bipartisan group a specific mission.

"Sec. 4. Mission. The Commission is charged with identifying policies to improve the fiscal situation in the medium term and to achieve fiscal sustainability over the long run. Specifically, the Commission shall propose recommendations designed to balance the budget, excluding interest payments on the debt, by 2015. This result is projected to stabilize the debt-to-GDP ratio at an acceptable level once the economy recovers. The magnitude and timing of the policy measures necessary to achieve this goal are subject to considerable uncertainty and will depend on the evolution of the economy. In addition, the Commission shall propose recommendations that meaningfully improve the long-run fiscal outlook, including changes to address the growth of entitlement spending and the gap between the projected revenues and expenditures of the Federal Government."

On December 1, 2010, the Commission released its report, The Moment of Truth: Report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.  The majority of the members of the committee voted in favor of the recommendations contained in the report.  Some of the members that voted against the report acknowledged that it contained some positive elements that could be used as part of a more comprehensive legislative plan.  While I personally don't agree with every aspect of the Commission's recommendations I supported it because the leaders of the Commission created a plan that can make a material impact on the US government's fiscal imbalances.

Unfortunately, President Obama took no action on the recommendations of his Commission.  He submitted his FY 2012 budget as though the Commission's report didn't exist.  All the good will and positive leadership he created by establishing the Commission was lost by his inaction.

President Obama's failure to act on the Commission's recommendations is a total abdication of leadership.  When a "leader" fully understands a major problem and fails to make any effort to deal with the problem than the leader has failed.  President Obama has fully demonstrated that he intellectually understands the US government's fiscal problems.  He appointed a very senior level Commission to address the problem.  The Commission delivered substantive recommendations.  Our President failed to act!  Our President failed to lead!  Any corporate leader that failed to act on a problem that is as serious as the US government's fiscal imbalances would be fired by the Board of Directors. 

US voters will not have an opportunity to fire President Obama until 2012.  We are the Board of Directors.  Hopefully, the Board will study and gain a full understanding of the issues. And hopefully, we will find a true leader that has the qualities necessary to fully address our nation's fiscal problems.  Hopefully, there is time left for corrective action before the problems get completely out of control.

Copyright 2011 by TPM