I believe that a truly effective leader knows who he is and where he is going and—by the example of his life and the power of his words—brings others with him.
President Obama is very good at words. Or, really, speaking words. I’ve often gotten the impression with him that in his speaking, the words seem to make more sense than they actually do. And when he’s ad libbing, he has difficulty getting his thoughts out and stringing them together coherently, clearly. Sometimes he sounds—to my ears—like an actor at first rehearsal, trying to remember lines he worked on only that morning. At other times, he sounds more like someone who simply hasn’t thought in the terms set by the question. He’s thinking out loud.
Certainly better than his predecessor.
As inexcusably weak as Bush often was at explaining and motivating through his words, no one can plausibly say they didn’t know who he was and where he was going.
I question whether our new president really knows who he is. We know he can at least speak the words, whether he fully comprehends them or not. He’s met with very smart conservatives—yes, some of them genuine conservatives—and, to a man, the testimony is that he is very intelligent, a good listener, very curious about the thinking of others. Of course, I’ve known people who were great at appearing that way. Until you got to watch them up close, interacting with others. I know that members of the African American community have commented on President Obama as a role model for fatherhood, and I can’t argue with that, or for the critical need for that kind of role model.
And yet, as a national leader, as a political figure—even as a man with friends and relationships—Mr. Obama is a blank slate. A riddle. Who is he, really? What does he really believe? What does he value more than anything? For what would he lay down his life? To what cause, greater than himself, would he pay the last full measure of devotion?
We don’t know. And I don’t know whether that’s because Obama doesn’t want us to know or whether it’s because he doesn’t know himself.
I suspect the latter.
Yesterday’s speech, to my mind, doesn’t even begin to offer answers to these questions.
Gordon Stewart was a speechwriter for President Carter. He says it better than I can, via the New York Times:
For all the talk before the speech about Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, why did it come out feeling so much like Ronald Reagan?
There were rhythms of Lincoln’s second inaugural, but, terrible as it is, one can only bind up wounds after a battle has been fought. Lincoln’s second was only possible after four years of bloody and unambiguous struggle. Roosevelt made it very clear where he was going, and who he was going after. The Kennedy speech gave Mr. Obama some precedent for his effective foreign affairs remarks today, but terrorism is simply not the omnipresent threat of mass annihilation that shadowed the globe for generations.
So what was the over-arching theme of President Obama’s address? What was its inexorable force of argument that would drive us to accept even what we might previously have opposed? Above all, what does it mean in specific, concrete, unmistakable action?
Like so much about the astonishingly gifted, directed, disciplined and composed Barack Obama – we don’t know. And my honest reaction listening to his inaugural address is that he doesn’t know either.
Whether history comes to regard President Obama’s remarks today as a great speech will depend upon how it comes to regard his presidency. And that will now, for the first time in his career, depend more on the actions he takes than the words he speaks.
Today he seized the capital. Tomorrow we will begin to learn from his actions how he chooses to use power, and how power will use him. Only then will we know what his words meant today. And who our 44th president really is.
He has managed to come out of nowhere and win the most powerful office in the world, but is President Obama a “truly effective” leader?