What makes a good leader? It's not sheer competency; we've all worked with smart people who do not inspire. It's not boldness alone; many a fortune and life has been lost because audacity without analytics often results in a violent collision with reality. History has shown us that good leaders possess both qualities, along with a strong sense of perspective and willingness to accept responsibility.
If that is the case, President Barack Obama may be a good man, but he is no leader. In his recent appearance on 60 Minutes he blamed "90 percent" of our country's increasing deficits on the policies of his predecessor. The so-called analysis behind this bizarre and self-serving assertion is so torturous that, as Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post put it last Wednesday, "under this theory, one could go back to the Lyndon Johnson administration and blame him for a huge chunk of the deficit, since he signed Medicare and Medicaid into law."
Of course, Obama has already trotted out a series of excuses for the state of our economy. They are memorably detailed in a great post by John Giokaris cited in my July 17 blog post and range from the sublime ("Americans are soft and lazy") to the ridiculous ("ATM use"). Presaging Obama's 60 Minutes appearance, George Bush shows up five times in Giokaris's rendition of Obama's Top 25 Excuses.
In fact, Charles Blahous, a Mercatus scholar and Obama-appointed public trustee (one of only two) of the Social Security and Medicare programs, presented a more accurate and even-handed analysis last August. He wrote:
Roughly half of the reason the surpluses never materialized is that federal spending was subsequently increased (over half of this total increase was concentrated in the three years of 2009-2011). A little over one-quarter disappeared because of subsequent corrections to the 2001 projections. Less than one-quarter was due to tax relief of any kind—and only a little more than half of that small fraction is directly attributable to the 2001 and 2003 tax relief packages.
And since there is truth to the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words, take a look at the final chart from Blahous' paper:
As the debt continues to grow past the $16 trillion mark and we face our fourth consecutive year of $1 trillion-plus deficits, any objective assessment puts a sizeable chunk of that blame on President Obama's shoulders. His unwillingness to accept responsibility for more than 10 percent of the problem smacks of the childish "Uh-uh, he did it" response parents get when asking which of their offspring was responsible for breaking granny's vase with the tennis ball.
Given the profligacy of the Bush years, I'd be willing to accept a "but he did it first" response as more truthful—even if it still lacks anything resembling leadership. My guess is the president's political team dial-tested that response and it tanked. Even more damning, under President Obama's budget, debt would surpass the $21 trillion mark in five short years and, quite simply, the budget doesn't balance. Ever. This from the man who promised the American people that he would cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term in office.
True leaders have vision, take responsibility and never ask anyone to do anything they don't have the courage to do themselves. In the past when our country faced dire circumstances, we spoke about ensuring a better future for our children. At this juncture, not only the future but the present is at stake. So many people have given up on finding jobs that our official measures of unemployment understate reality by several percentage points. During the slowest economic recovery in our nation's history, minorities have suffered seriously but women have suffered the most. The president, who purports to be a champion of the middle class, has presided over a period when such families who sacrifice to put their kids through college now see half of those young adults unemployed or underemployed.
Given the harsh economic reality of the past four years, the Washington Post was correct to give President Obama's statement about his role in our record deficits what it deserved: Four Pinocchios. Americans deserve a better performance from him in the debate Wednesday night.