America's most iconic presidents demonstrated bold leadership during trying times. The best examples were George Washington during the Revolutionary War and in the early days of the fragile republic; Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War; and Franklin Roosevelt during the Depression and World War II. All of them led the nation with decisiveness and an inspirational quality that stood the test of time. But President Obama is positioning himself as something different, not a bold leader in this iconic mold, but more as the capital's referee.
Today's challenges aren't easy. Obama is trying to sort out a host of very tough issues, including budget priorities, the debt ceiling, entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, and the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. But Obama hasn't emerged as the kind of daring and charismatic leader that many voters expected when they elected him in 2008. Rushing to the front lines of the battle is not Obama's style. [See photos of unrest in Libya.]
This reluctance, what one Democratic strategist called "a policy of hesitation," has been the target of growing criticism from both Republicans and some Democrats, and a concern of everyday Americans. "The president isn't leading," House Speaker John Boehner told reporters. "He didn't lead on last year's budget, and he clearly is not leading on this year's budget." Among Democrats who have recently criticized Obama for failing to move to the forefront on budget issues are Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan. Overall, only about half of Americans say Obama is a strong and decisive leader, a decline from 73 percent two years ago and 60 percent a year ago, according to the Gallup Poll.
Obama's speech last week on the deficit was designed in part to ease these concerns, but he came very late to the debate over entitlements, and, while he was more specific than in the past, his address didn't qualify as ground-breaking. Instead, it established Obama as one voice among many in the budget fight, a very important voice, to be sure, but not one that will drown out everyone else. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the federal budget and deficit.]
Despite the obstacles ahead, Obama is still in a relatively strong position to be re-elected. The field of potential Republican challengers is considered lackluster. And many voters have concluded that the country's problems are so severe that America can't afford a failed presidency, so they are rooting for Obama to succeed, according to pollsters of both major parties. Obama remains a very likable figure as an individual, is seen as smart and well-intentioned, and is considered a good family man who has a strong character, which is a powerful buffer that softens negative assessments of his policies. The latest CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll finds that the country is almost evenly split on his presidency, with 50 percent disapproving his job performance and 48 percent approving. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP candidates.]
On the other side, things aren't going so smoothly for the Republicans in Congress. GOP strategists are warning their congressional leaders that the public isn't ready to accept massive changes in Medicare—changes which are a cornerstone of GOP plans to cut the deficit. Republican advisers say that any effort to make those changes without a better rationale could lead to deep voter opposition to GOP candidates in the 2012 elections. The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that 53 percent of Americans favor only minor modifications or no change in Medicare, while 44 percent favor an overhaul or major changes. This means that, over the past year, support has actually increased for Medicare as it currently operates.
In political terms, the story on Capitol Hill is a familiar tightrope walk. Senate Democrats, led by Majority Leader Harry Reid, don't want to alienate their left wing, but at the same time don't want to anger independents who tend to be centrists. House Republicans, led by Boehner, don't want to alienate their right wing, especially the Tea Party activists, and also don't want to anger those same centrist independents.
Many of the principal players, including Obama, Reid, and Boehner, say they seek a profound debate about what Americans want their federal government to be, how much help Washington should give individuals and businesses, and how much individuals and businesses should rely on themselves. But given our polarized nation, our divided capital, and our harsh political climate, it's likely that the coming battles will generate a lot more heat than light.