Why Obama’s Second Term is Doomed to Mediocrity
In the last few weeks, as we have all witnessed the absolute meltdown of the Obamacare Website, there has been much talk—mostly by President Obama—about the “best and the brightest” he has brought in to fix the problem. That term, “best and brightest” was made part of the leadership vernacular not by Obama, but by another president, JFK.
It was Kennedy’s “whiz kids”—the best of academia and industry—who became associated with the term “the best and the brightest.” JFK of course had his brother, Bobby Kennedy, as his attorney general. There was also Ted Sorenson, Kennedy’s special counsel, adviser, and legendary speechwriter, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the Pulitzer Prize Winner who served as special assistant and “court historian” to JFK, among many others.
However, all of this talk about the best and brightest by Obama, did get me thinking about JFK (precisely one month away from the 50th anniversary of his assassination). I am afraid Obama is no JFK, but truth be told, JFK was not quite the legendary JFK we have built him up to be. He was beloved and charismatic, but intellectuals like Peter Drucker asserted that his legislative feats were not quite as impressive as he was.
Before I wax on too long, this piece is about the 44th president, not the 35th.
When Obama trod out the words “best and brightest,” I immediately thought of Kennedy and instantly knew why things have gone so wrong for Obama since he was sworn in for his second term. It got me to think about Obama’s presidency in a much broader sense than a failed healthcare Website or a misstep or two.
It hit me. Like a ton of bricks. The answer was so obvious.
In his first term, Obama took great pains to bring on the smartest, most capable people he could find. He even appointed his foes, if he felt that person was the strongest candidate for the job. He hired the best, and not only in his cabinet, but in other key posts as well. I thought back to the people he surrounded himself his first time around as president: there were outstanding leaders like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But as important, he made sure to have the best political advisors of his day. There was the two Davids—Plouffe and Axelrod—two of the greatest political minds of his day (Plouffe was so good that he was later paid $1.5 million+ for a political non-fiction book).
The “Davids” not only helped Obama to win elections, they advised him on a great number of things. Obama also had the feisty, but imminently clever and ruthless Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff for most of his first term as well.
That really got me wondering about one recent specific event in particular. When Obama was on the verge of launching missile attacks against Syria [for using chemical weapons on a massive scale], he took a 45-minute walk with his “new” chief of staff Denis McDonough. According to the official White House Website, Obama said that “Denis has played a key role in every major national security decision of my presidency…from ending the war in Iraq to winding down the war in Afghanistan.”
Could it be that it was the same man that helped Obama to end two wars that talked Obama into calling off those strikes at the last minute? I wonder about what would have happened if that walk was taken with ruthless Rahm Emanuel instead. Whether it was good policy or not, it was Obama’s own “red line” that was crossed and his inaction diminished the United States in the eyes of the rest of the world. The buck stops with him, not his chief of staff. But advisors can play huge roles in the success—or lack thereof—of any leader.
When Obama failed to take action in Syria, after declaring that red line, He looked weak and indecisive. And that was not only the view from foreign capitals, it was the view from inside our borders as well. And for any leader, especially the one at the helm of the free world, there is great danger with looking weak and indecisive.
It invites miscalculation—both home and abroad.
Could it be that the Republicans—who felt that Obama would back down as had been his method of operation up to that point—would not have shut down the government had Obama had a reputation for standing up and doing exactly what he said he was going to do? Of course, we will never know the answer to that, but it certainly gets one thinking. And regardless of who is responsible (and the American public mostly blames congressional Republicans), it is Obama’s economy. And in his economy, the U.S. dollar is not worth as much as it was worth before the 16-day shutdown and near default of the full faith and credit of the United States. Not when Chinese leaders come out—and they never come out—to call for the “de-Americanization” of the world.
Right now we are in the thick of the Website disaster that is the face of Obamacare. The optics for the president are disastrous. But the Website is merely a symptom of a much larger, systemic problem. And that is that Obama has surrounded himself with a cabinet—and a team of advisors—that rates no better than a “C” and really much closer to a “C-.” How else can you explain the fact that no one even bothered to tell the president that the Website for his one signature piece of legislation was in trouble before he could do anything about it?
I need not name names (and of course there are exceptions like Secretary of State John Kerry—his speech arguing for the bombing of Syria was a portrait in courage), but there isn’t a doubt in my mind that Obama is in trouble. Between the lack of action in Syria and the latest budget debacle that took us right to the brink of insolvency, this is a White House in crisis, whether they know it or not.
Is crisis too strong a word?
No. We are a country that has been weakened by this president. There is a crisis of confidence that has attached itself to this administration like the stench that sticks to a particularly odorous garbage landfill.
Let’s take Saudi Arabia as an example of how leader’s minds are changing across the globe toward the U.S. The Wall Street Journal reported that Saudi Arabia would no longer cooperate with the United States on arming and training Syrian rebels. That declaration came after Saudi Arabia surprisingly renounced its seat on the U.N. Security Council. The delegation explained it away by saying that it was upset with the Security Council’s lack of action toward Syria, but Prince Bandar Bin Sultan al-Saud allegedly told others that “this was a message for the U.S.”
The lesson is clear: the bigger the job, the greater the need for top minds and top talent. Hire people that do not measure up and your leadership will be crippled—and once you lose it, there is simply no place to go to get your reputation back. And this lame duck president still has three years to preside over a crippled America that he himself cut off at the knees with his own poor decision-making. Peter Drucker taught me a great deal [when I interviewed him for my book Inside Drucker’s Brain]. He told me that the best leaders know how to hire, who to fire, and who to promote. If you measure second-term Obama against those Drucker leadership criteria, Obama fails on just about every level.
—-Jeffrey A. Krames, October 23rd, 2013