When Republicans question Obama's "leadership," do they have a point?

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April 11 2011 7:39 PM

The Follower?

Republicans question the president's leadership. Do they have a point?

President Barack Obama.
Barack Obama

Leadership in politics is more often discussed than demonstrated. In the current budget debate, which has and will touch on every hot-button issue from entitlements to taxes, an underlying debate between the parties has centered around which lawmakers are "showing leadership" and which are simply trying to take credit for it. Republicans claim President Obama has not been a leader. But what they see as a deficiency in leadership may simply be a disagreement over strategy in which the president actually displays many of the same qualities Republican leaders once praised.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

"Bold, dynamic followership," reads the subject line of an email Monday from House Speaker John Boehner's office criticizing the president. Obama had a chance to define a plan for deficit reduction and entitlement reform in his State of the Union address, but he ducked that opportunity. Now that House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan has offered a sweeping plan that addresses those issues, the president has announced that he will give a speech Wednesday on those topics. The congressman from Wisconsin took the lead in addressing the politically difficult issues, and the president trails in his wake. The body of the email from Boehner's office helpfully defines the words leader and follower.

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The president's speech will challenge the House Republican budget and call for a more balanced approach-- that's a word we'll hear a lot from the White House in the coming weeks. It comes on the heels of the averted shutdown saga in which Obama played a backseat role. He did not push for significant cuts, and though his staff was deeply involved, he only inserted himself in the debate at the last stage. So Republicans had to stifle their guffaws when they saw Obama appear late Friday night and appear to take credit for the agreement that kept government operating.

It wasn't so much the president's words that suggested he was taking credit, but the images made it look that way. He appeared from the White House with the Washington Monument in the background, declaring that America's monuments had been kept open. On Monday, Obama continued the theme by visiting with a school class from Longmont, Colo.; a mother of one of the students wrote to the president expressing worry the visit would be ruined by the shutdown, which the president highlighted in his remarks. When you have a presidential escort, it doesn't take long to zoom to the front of the parade.

Republicans are irritated because they want credit for the deal that cuts spending. They want credit not only because they think it will help them get re-elected, but also because it will help them win support with the spending cuts they want to win in the budget fights to come. They accuse the president of trying to get the glory without taking the political risk. Given that a president usually gets the political penalty whether he deserves it or not, perhaps this is one of the few times the dynamic works to his advantage.

The White House expected these lumps. The president and his aides made a tactical decision to be followers on the budget deficit. They chose not to put forward a plan to reform entitlements to bring down costs and decided not to embrace the findings of Obama's own fiscal commission. If the president had led in this way, say White House advisers, his proposals would have become a target, and nothing major would have gotten done. This obviously was also a political strategy. Bravery points don't help when the other party clobbers you for your bold proposals. (See also: health care reform).

The Obama approach was ratified at the time by a leader of the party now criticizing the president for his lack of leadership. On the day of the president's State of the Union address, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told Mike Allen of Politico that if he were president, he wouldn't speak in public about the details of an entitlement overhaul. Something that politically complicated and volatile could only be worked out in secret.

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