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A Presidency In Search Of A President

Barack Obama’s announcement this week that he will again seek the presidency in 2012 is welcome news, in a way, because this country sorely needs a president. What it has right now is a chairman.

Granted, the incumbent’s title is President Obama, not Chairman Obama. But apart from the title and trappings of his office, the only thing presidential about Obama’s performance thus far has been, on occasion, his rhetoric. He looks like a president. He sounds like a president. He just doesn’t act like a president. It appears that he does not know how a president is supposed to act.

Monday’s announcement that Obama will seek re-election was typical. Anyone who wants to motivate millions of people to campaign for him, and to convince donors to pony up maybe a half-billion dollars for organizing and advertising, needs to display some commitment to the cause. He has to show that he and they are part of a team. It takes a personal touch.

Obama, instead, sent an e-mail to supporters of his 2008 campaign and included a two-minute video. The Washington Post captured the spirit, if not the precise strategy, behind the move when it said “Obama aides plan to define his tenure as a time of major progress, taking on such issues as health care that have long bedeviled presidents of both parties, improving the economy and winding down the war in Iraq.” Obama aides plan to define his presidency? What about Obama himself? He wants another four years in the most powerful job in the land — many would say in the world — yet he does not need to personally make the case for why he should have it?

Obama will surely deliver campaign speeches over the next 20 months. The issue is not that he does not speak enough, or speak well enough; it is that he seldom takes personal ownership of any problem or challenge, including his own re-election.

The presidency, like any chief executive job, is all about responsibility. An effective executive must delegate much of the work, and should delegate a lot of the credit when things go right. But the chief can never delegate responsibility for meeting a challenge or accountability when things go wrong.

Obama simply does not appear to grasp this. He seems to see himself as an agenda-setter or a facilitator. As I write this post, the federal government faces a partial shutdown at midnight tonight over the budget impasse. We’re talking about Obama’s agencies here, the organization he runs as CEO, having to interrupt the nation’s vital business. Yet he has largely confined himself to trying to broker a deal between House Republicans and Senate Democrats. There is no indication that the president has injected himself into the negotiations to say “here is what I can live without, here is what I absolutely must have, here is what I can offer in exchange for something else.”

We have seen this over and over, from health care to financial reform to troop levels in Afghanistan. Obama does not set priorities, stake out positions, or decide which objectives are lower priorities that can be sacrificed in favor of greater goals. He likes to lay out options, foster discussion, and finally weigh in at the end of the process when most everything is settled. When decisions are really difficult, like setting troop levels in Afghanistan, or intervening in Libya, or administering justice to prisoners held at Guant√°namo, his approach is to study, debate, delay or split the difference.

We end up with irrational results. Obama decided in 2009 to send more troops to Afghanistan, but he coupled that with a firm deadline to begin pulling them out by the middle of 2011, though he had no way to know if a pullout this year would be desirable. Sure enough, once wartime reality began to intrude, the pullout promise morphed into emptiness, with a pledge that the pullout would be stretched out for as long as necessary.

In a more recent example, Obama dithered over engaging in Libya, finally did so to avert carnage in Benghazi, and then cut back American air support just as it seemed to be bringing the Libyan regime closer to its downfall, which is Obama’s stated goal.

Call it hokey-pokey leadership: You put your soldiers in, you pull your soldiers out, you put your soldiers in...

In the corporate world, the board of directors sets policy, and the chairman sets the agenda for the board. The chairman does not actually run the company unless the chairman happens to also be the chief executive officer. It is the chief executive who is responsible for seeing that things get done.

More than halfway through his term, Obama still behaves like a chairman. He sets an agenda and helps lead the discussion, but he leaves both the decision-making and the implementing to others. He takes personal responsibility for virtually nothing. This is perhaps unsurprising for someone who has never run anything at all, and whose political success has hinged entirely on his speaking ability.

The classic CEO starts in the mailroom, pays his dues, and works his way up from the inside. He thus understands a lot about how things actually get done; he has a body of experience on which to draw. Obama had no such advantages when he first ran for president. His meteoric political rise through the Illinois Legislature, through two-thirds of a single U.S. Senate term, to the White House, to the Nobel Peace Prize, was all built on talk. He never showed any patience for doing grunt work or paying dues. He appears to have no patience for it now.

But he wants another four years in office. The best case he can make for it is that he needed a term in the White House to get to know the job, and now he is ready to be president. Maybe he’ll try this call-and-response rhetoric at a campaign rally: “Trained up and ready to go!”

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Anyone Can Achieve Wealth,” and Chapter 19, “Assisting Aging Parents.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s previous book Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55.

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