Obama’s Indispensable Leadership


In the film Office Space, Tom Smykowski gets fired after a couple of outside consultants realize that his job is essentially pointless and he contributes nothing of value to the company. Here’s the clip, which you’ve probably seen:

What would President Obama say in such an interview? How would he answer a question like: "What would you say you do here?" This is not an entirely rhetorical question. Obviously being president is an incredibly grueling job that no well-adjusted individual would ever apply for, but looking back on some of the Obama administration’s most noteworthy accomplishments and scandals, what role, if any, did Obama play? And what does it say about his leadership?

In his new memoir, Obama’s former defense secretary and CIA director Leon Panetta describes the president’s "most conspicuous weakness" as "a frustrating reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause," and his tendency to invoke "the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader." As result, Obama "avoids the battle, complains, and misses opportunities."

Does any of this sound particularly surprising or out of character? Or is it, in fact, perfectly in keeping with the assessment of Obama’s critics, including those in his own party. It’s almost as if a notoriously aloof Obama has been repeatedly overwhelmed by a job for which he lacked any relevant qualifications.

When it comes to the signature accomplishments of Obama’s first term—the stimulus package and Obamacare—by all accounts the president took a "hand-off approach" to both, outlining a few vague principles before entrusting Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi to work out the details. The same goes for the stalled immigration reform bill, which was meant to be one of the signature accomplishments of Obama’s second term. Chuck Schumer did all the heavy lifting, and Obama is still scrambling to come up with a plan of his own.

Since Republicans took over the House in 2010, Obama seems to have accomplished very little apart from getting reelected and presiding over a number of scandals. To his credit, he also gave the order to launch the mission that killed bin Laden, which was made possible by the same intelligence community he now blames for underestimating the strength of ISIS in Iraq.

Speaking of Iraq, this clip from a recent PBS documentary paints a pretty clear picture of Obama’s approach to the war effort after taking office in 2009. His "strategy," if you can call it that, consisted of putting Joe Biden in charge of handling Iraq, disengaging from the country politically, and pulling out militarily against the advice of his advisers in order to fulfill a campaign pledge. Obama didn’t want to be distracted by Iraq; he was too busy "focusing" on the economy and healthcare (i.e., telling Democrats in Congress to deal with them).

The myriad scandals that have erupted since 2012, and Obama’s response to them, suggest the president really is as detached as his critics claim. The president claimed he was not aware of the technical problems surrounding the botched rollout of HealthCare.gov, despite holding numerous meetings with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to discuss the law. He typically learns about his administration’s scandals by reading about them in "press reports."

Obama repeatedly promised to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs. How did that work out? Obama nominated Julia Pierson in 2013 to clean up the Secret Service. How did that work out? Did he ever follow up to see whether his goals were being accomplished? Evidently not. He seems to have a full schedule these days, what with the dinner parties with "interesting Italians," golf dates with Alonzo Mourning, and the "bear is loose" outings to Chipotle, not to mention all the Democratic fundraisers.

Meanwhile, he’s missed almost two-thirds of his daily intelligence briefings, but still finds time to catch up on episodes of True Detective, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Homeland, as well as the NBA playoffs, which he follows "obsessively." He certainly seems to have decided, given the prospect to fighting a Republican-controlled Senate for the remainder of his term, to phone it in.

So, what, exactly, does Obama do? Is there anything that makes him indispensable? Unlike Tom Smykowski, he appears to lack even basic "people skills," and that’s according to his own supporters. The next two years are going to be fun.