Reflections on the Leadership of President Obama

obama 31 Reflections on the Leadership of President ObamaWatching President Obama in Cairo the other day, I was struck by his vision, ambition, and his desire to bring about change. Having voted for him in the New York primary last year and in the general election in November, I confess to having enormous sympathy for him. I root for him like he is the home team. Since I focus my work on easy issues like environmental sustainability, I don’t pretend to have any answers for the more difficult dilemma of peace in the Middle East. As an American Jew, I have a deep emotional attachment to the State of Israel, and I can’t help but be worried about Israel’s security. However, I know that generations of Palestinian refugee camps and years of armed conflict cannot be a path to peace and security.  So, I give the President enormous credit for his search for a new start. I guess it’s a mark of his sense of balance and possibly the hopelessness of this effort, that he is criticized by people on all sides of the issue.  Answers to conflicts like this take years of effort, toughness, clever strategic thinking, and patience– and I think we are beginning to learn that Obama is capable of all of this.

The day after his Cairo speech, President Obama visited the site of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and anti-war activist Elie Wiesel. Wiesel spoke movingly of his father’s death in the camp and President Obama’s brief remarks also resonated with deep emotion.  “I will not forget what I’ve seen here today,” Obama said after touring the camp. “These sites have not lost their horror with the passage of time …This place teaches us that we must be ever vigilant about the spread of evil in our times.”  It was a remarkable event, with words and images that were truly memorable.

It is early in the game, and the endless global news cycle and complex interconnected economy makes it tough to even know what it means to be a leader and change agent in these difficult times. In this wacky world, the President and First Lady can’t even take in dinner and a Broadway show without someone finding fault with them. Still, I see the seeds of greatness in the first half year of this Presidency.  The potential is all there: The obvious brainpower and ambitious street smarts; the heart, soul and commitment of a man who knows who he is and is comfortable with his place in the world.  It’s too early to know how this story will evolve, but the President and his new team have only made a few obvious mistakes so far.

The contemporary tendency to constantly sit in judgment of every small thing our leaders do is more than a little weird. The intense scrutiny of constant cable news coupled with the Blogosphere, creates an endless demand for news and analysis. This is happening at the very time when the business model that supported large news staffs in great metropolitan newspapers and TV networks is in a state of free fall. Our thirst for facts and analysis is growing at the same time our capacity for supporting a profession responsible for gathering and assessing facts is shrinking. In the case of President Obama, I think it is worthwhile to sit back and reflect on both the accomplishments and the potential of his young Presidency.

First and foremost, we see a guiding intelligence and an effort at dispassionate judgment that I didn’t think we’d ever see again in the White House. The process that produces the modern President is so grueling and circus-like that it seems to attract people who need the Presidency more than we need them to be President.  Why would a smart, normal,  balanced person be attracted to a crazy process that if you succeed only makes you a prisoner of a security bubble for four or eight years? At times, it seems like a small miracle to see a talent like Barack Obama behind that Presidential podium. 

It’s also a talent that may have arrived in the nick of time. The strains on the planet and the world’s economy as well as the danger posed by terror and weapons of mass destruction require greatness in our leaders.  So far, we’ve seen movement at home with economic and energy policy, and efforts abroad, to redefine American diplomacy and reinforce our national security. A lot has happened in a short period of time- but a lot more still needs to be done.