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A call for leadership

John Sandberg | Sunday, January 20, 2013

In Washington, D.C., some things are clearer than others.
In the midst of red-tape tangles, soft money streams and ubiquitous questions of constitutional authority, other events and actions in the nation’s capital remain strikingly distinct.
The inaugural address is one of them.
Today the entire nation will have an unobstructed view of its figurehead. As President Barack Obama stands alone, high above the throngs of seated witnesses waiting to hear his message, there will be no doubt as to who bears the most responsibility for the successes and failures of America. Unreasonable as it may be to assign the successes and failures of a nation to one individual, such is the reality of the presidency.
It’s no secret national leaders have failed to create comprehensive plans on much of anything in the last four years. But as Steven Pearlstein accurately wrote in the Washington Post on Wednesday, the problem is not the debt ceiling, economic growth nor entitlements.
America is suffering from a crisis in leadership.
“What [the Obama administration] misunderstand[s],” Pearlstein writes, “is what real leaders do when confronted with stubborn and unyielding opponents. You don’t say ‘I won’t negotiate with myself,’ as Obama is fond of saying when criticized for his refusal to put forward his own version of a grand bargain. You find other, more reasonable people to negotiate with who might be enticed to throw off the bonds of party loyalty and embrace a genuine bipartisan compromise.”
Though it’s true Obama has faced an uncooperative Congress, any second-rate politician can dig his heels in further or simply blame the opposition. Obama has been as guilty of this as anyone, and stubbornness and excuses will do nothing to benefit the country.
The man Americans elected in 2008 with the hope of bringing a new attitude and fresh ideas to government has too often appeared unwilling to compromise, leaving much to be desired from the president in his first term.
What we need on this Inauguration Day is a better leader. This, too, we see with unquestionable clarity.
Perhaps Obama can start by taking a lesson from recent history. Both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton found themselves entrenched in partisan dogfights during their presidencies. Instead of shrinking away from their respective budget battles, however, these men thrived on them. They relished the back and forth with their respective opposition. They took the time to pay late-night visits to the Capitol, write a short letter or make an extra phone call here and there to ensure a deal got done. And the country was better off because of it.
Even if he doesn’t thrive on partisan battles in Reaganesque or Clintonese fashion, Obama still needs to find a way to practice the dying art of deal making. If Congressional leaders can’t do it, he must try.
No more speeches. No more barnstorming the country to muster support from the electorate.
I didn’t vote for the president and I know my views on the role and scope of the federal government are fundamentally different than his. Yet I maintain a dogged faith in the institution of the presidency. I believe it is an office in which the holder can do great things if he has, in equal parts, political fortitude and a willingness to hear the other side.
I’m hopeful productive compromises can be achieved during Obama’s second term and I do not deny that Congress has a job to do as well. But before anything else the president needs to realize he is not another cog in the machine that is Washington gridlock. He is the president, and he must act upon the opportunity his second term represents for him to show real leadership and not political posturing.
After all, the difference between the two could not be any clearer.

John Sandberg is a junior political science major from Littleton, Colo. He can be reached at jsandbe1@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.