Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Centrality of Character in Political Leadership

[This is the latest post from Heidi Li's Potpourri at its new home. The subscribe by feed and by email features are now clearly set up at "Potpourri 2.0"]

The challenge of being President of the United States is the same challenge each adult faces every day of her or his life: when the unexpected occurs what dispositions or character traits guide our decision making in those moments where we must act swiftly under conditions of uncertainty. In ordinary life, people who rise to these occasions with excellence are those we consider wise. In political life, people who rise to such occasions with excellence are both wise and politically wise. To my mind, the most significant times George W. Bush demonstrated that he lacks both sorts of wisdom were his immediate responses to two unprecedented disasters that occurred during his presidency: the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and presumably the White House (the plane that the passengers bravely crashed was apparently aimed at the White House) and Hurricane Katrina, a natural disaster that devastated New Orleans and large swathes of Gulf Coast States.

When the 9/11 attacks occurred, President Bush escaped into the air, while Senator Clinton and Mayor Giuliani hit the streets of New York City. When Hurricane Katrina hit, President Bush again spent his time up in the air, literally and figuratively, flying over New Orleans without touching down and then dithering about what to do about rehabilitating the region.

Now more than ever Senator Obama reminds me of George W. Bush. With Sarah Palin's unexpected selection and successful debut as the Repubulican vice-presidential nominee, Senator Obama has reacted by doing very little, perhaps trying to seem above the fray, but ultimately coming across as a person ill-equipped to show leadership in the face of unexpected problems. I do not mean to compare Governor Palin's selection and success to terrorist attacks or natural disasters. The comparison lies in how a President and a would-be President respond to unexpected events that prove problematic for them - in President Bush's case because the events threatened the well-being of our country as well as his own political standing; in Senator Obama's case because the event threatens his political standing - and well, yes, if you believe that Governor Palin's policy positions are bad for the country and that were she to become vice-president she would be able to implement those positions, then her selection and success do threaten the well being of the country.

A wiser person than Senator Obama would not have let the pundits and the press treat Senator Palin with dismissive misogyny and sexism. A wiser politician would not have done so either. But time and again, Senator Obama fails to show wisdom when confronted with the hard cold fact of reality: that it has a stubborn way of refusing to be scripted and that you have to deal with that. You cannot, like George W. Bush, decide that you create your own reality - nobody has that much power. Writing a revisionist memoir will not serve as an effective response to immediate, pressing problems. Neither will staging a rally or trying to predetermine outcomes. That's the point about reality: it defies stagecraft and rigging: it must be dealt with, preferably with wisdom.

Ultimately, Senator Palin's selection and success as John McCain's running-mate matters relatively little to me - except possibly to the extent that it demonstrates Senator McCain's astute political dispositions, his ability qua politician to respond to difficult and uncertain circumstances with politically shrewd decisions. But what matters so much more is the paucity of Senator Obama's response to the display of powerful political character by both Senator McCain and Governor Palin over the last week. If he cannot respond with acuity to this sort of problematic reality, what does that suggest about his readiness, his natural dispositions, to respond wisely when confronted with the unexpected events that arise in the course of every presidency? Nothing very good.

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