Leaders in Search of Followers

Barack Obama and John Boehner have morphed into mirror images. Right now neither one of them is able to rustle up followers sufficient in numbers to do what their leaders want and intend.

Barack Obama just gave in to his putative followers – in this case liberal Senate Democrats – who made clear their opposition to the appointment of Larry Summers as chair of the Federal Reserve. (Summers, knowing he was toast, withdrew his name from contention even before he was formally nominated.) And John Boehner just gave in to his putative followers – in this case conservative House Republicans – who made clear their opposition to an agreement on the federal budget without a resolution stripping funding for Obamacare.

The press jumped on its prey – leaders so obviously weakened that dissecting what happened was an impulse impossible to resist. Writing in Politico, a liberal rag generally sympathetic to the White House, John Harris and Todd Purdum asked, “What’s wrong with President Obama”? (9/18) They went on: “The president’s harried, serial about-faces on Syria – coupled with the collapse of Larry Summers’s candidacy for chairmanship of the Federal Reserve – have combined to highlight some enduring limitations of Obama’s approach to decision-making, public persuasion, and political management. Across the capital, anxious friends and chortling enemies alike are asking: What’s wrong with Obama?” In a similar tone, a piece in the New York Times put Boehner’s plight this way: “A rotating cast of characters – often back-bench newcomers whom few have heard of outside their districts, and who were elected on a Tea Party wave – has emerged to challenge Speaker John A. Boehner’s leadership at every turn.”

It happens that both Obama and Boehner are centrists – ideologically and temperamentally. They are much more comfortable in the middle than they are either at the one extreme (the left) or the other (the right). But they are being torn in different directions by those around them, who refuse to give even an inch in order to walk a mile.

I am no great fan of either man. They are leaders with obvious deficits. But neither one of them is a fool, and neither one of them is anything other than well-intentioned. The problem they face is the time in which they live. Obama and Boehner are being victimized by the mood of the moment, in which likely as not leaders are rendered hapless by followers refusing to follow.

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