Obama Is the President, and the President Must Lead

Nobody who has followed my columns on this whole sorry shutdown affair can accuse me of being a shill for House Republicans. Over the past two weeks, I have compared them to striking workers, blamed them almost entirely for the shutdown, and equated them with a self-blocking rectum.

I have many faults, but being an uncritical Republican apologist is not one of them. So it is as one who has been largely sympathetic to President Obama’s position that I will say, as forcefully as I can, that it is now time for him to stop being the head of the Democratic Party and start being the leader of our nation.

Politics is not for weak stomachs. I get that. I have read Machiavelli in multiple translations and The Art of War in more than one. Republicans played hardball with Obama, and he played hardball right back. Bare knuckles, back rooms, yadda yadda yadda. Republicans seriously overplayed a hand that wasn’t particularly strong to begin with, and the resulting backlash could spell disaster for their prospects in 2014, 2016, and beyond. I hope that it does.

But dammit, we only have one president, and, ultimately, that president is in charge. He is responsible for making sure that the stuff that isn’t getting done gets done. Once we acknowledge that ultimate responsibility for the ship of state lies with the president, assessing the initial responsibility for the shutdown matters less and less. Our government is currently in a state of dysfunctional paralysis, and the longer the dysfunction continues, the less interested most people (myself included) will be in trying to figure out who started it.

Prior to this weekend’s talks, House Republicans abandoned the specific demands that initially lead to the government shutdown two weeks ago. They are no longer demanding that the Affordable Care Act be repealed, or defunded, or even delayed. By all accounts, they aren’t even quite sure what they want—just that they want something that they can use as a fig leaf to cover their nether regions while they retreat.

The President can gain nothing, and can lose much, by insisting on a total and unconditional victory. Most people would rather do as much damage as possible in a lost cause than agree to surrender under such terms. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu advises generals, when dealing with an enemy, to “show him there is a road to safety, and so create in his mind the idea that there is an alternative to death. Then strike.” And over the past 3,000 years, generals have ignored this advice to their peril. So too have politicians.

Solving problems is not an incidental leadership task; solving problems is what leaders do. And America has problems that desperately need to be solved. Great leaders solve difficult problems before anybody knows they are problems and rarely get any credit for doing so. Good leaders solve difficult problems after they become problems and are usually hailed as geniuses. And mediocre leaders have at least figured out how to stay out of the way when problems are in the process of solving themselves. If Obama cannot find a way to lead America out of its present crisis—regardless of whose fault the crisis was to begin with—he risks landing in the fourth category: leaders who make everything worse just by showing up.