The Myth of Presidential Leadership: Obama’s challenge revisited

Norm Ornstein writes, in his National Review Column, The Myth of Presidential Leadership, “Many Washington pundits are critical of the president’s ability to wrangle concessions out of Congress, but they forget that his power has limits.”

Here’s the meat of his argument:

I have been struck by this phenomenon a lot recently, because at nearly every speech I give, someone asks about President Obama’s failure to lead. Of course, that question has been driven largely by the media, perhaps most by Bob Woodward. When Woodward speaks, Washington listens, and he has pushed the idea that Obama has failed in his fundamental leadership task—not building relationships with key congressional leaders the way Bill Clinton did, and not “working his will” the way LBJ or Ronald Reagan did.

Now, after the failure to get the background-check bill through the Senate, other reporters and columnists have picked up on the same theme, and I have grown increasingly frustrated with how the mythology of leadership has been spread in recent weeks. I have yelled at the television set, “Didn’t any of you ever read Richard Neustadt’s classic Presidential Leadership? Haven’t any of you taken Politics 101 and read about the limits of presidential power in a separation-of-powers system?”

But the issue goes beyond that, to a willful ignorance of history. No one schmoozed more or better with legislators in both parties than Clinton. How many Republican votes did it get him on his signature initial priority, an economic plan? Zero in both houses. And it took eight months to get enough Democrats to limp over the finish line. How did things work out on his health care plan? How about his impeachment in the House?

No one knew Congress, or the buttons to push with every key lawmaker, better than LBJ. It worked like a charm in his famous 89th, Great Society Congress, largely because he had overwhelming majorities of his own party in both houses. But after the awful midterms in 1966, when those swollen majorities receded, LBJ’s mastery of Congress didn’t mean squat.

No one defined the agenda or negotiated more brilliantly than Reagan. Did he “work his will”? On almost every major issue, he had to make major compromises with Democrats, including five straight years with significant tax increases. But he was able to do it—as he was able to achieve a breakthrough on tax reform—because he had key Democrats willing to work with him and find those compromises.

ap 121012 obama speaks

ap 121012 obama speaks

For Obama, we knew from the get-go that he had no Republicans willing to work with him. As Robert Draper pointed out in his book Do Not Ask What Good We Do, key GOP leaders such as Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan determined on inauguration eve in January 2009 that they would work to keep Obama and his congressional Democratic allies from getting any Republican votes for any of his priorities or initiatives.Read the rest…

It seems like there are a lot of myths of leadership that we are all hoping will come true: the president can force oppositional parties to do the right thing by sheer leadership alone, authenticity eventually makes everyone respect us, transformation is pleasurable and inevitable in the hands of a great leader, leaders can and should live up to their public relations press…. The list goes on and on. Thanks to Ornstein for popping that leadership balloon, and talking about the challenges of the real process of leadership, not the fantasy!

Sure, there’s truth in our myths — that’s why they are such pervasive, persuasive, perverse half-truths. That’s why we get so frustrated and righteous when our personal myths of leadership don’t have the results we expect. When we can interpret events in a way that our personal myths are true, we feel affirmed, pleased to the core of our very identity as leader or follower or both. And the success or failure of cultural myths about leadership have the same effect on organizations and communities.

We want our dreams to be true, and leadership is a dream as much as a process. This is where our faith in leaders and leadership, where the spiritual power of leaders connects with our hopes, fears and deepest beliefs. It’s not a rational space, but it is the source of much power and confusion. Where culture, personal beliefs and identity collide, we find the most potent myths about who we are and how we want our leaders to be.

Obama gets to navigate that mythic leadership minefield as well as the real challenges of being the first black President in the divisive politics of here and now. It’s not an enviable position!

One comment

  1. […] Followers must always be leaders, just as leaders must have the humility to be followers. The fantasy of leadership makes us wish our presidents inherited a leadership wand, to fix the problems we face.  And certainly, when we see something as groundbreaking as a […]


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