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Let’s imagine a hypothetical.
A President spends significant foreign policy resources--his time, his Secretary of State’s time, political capital--to build a coalition. Crafting this coalition requires cajoling, bribing, encouraging, compromising and sacrificing...on all sides. At the end of a long process, the coalition is built and decides to act.
In other words, the President is leading on the issue. Everything described above is leadership if, you know, leadership means convincing others to follow your lead. (Which it does.)
But I didn’t say what the issue was on purpose. The moment I do, well, the opposite side of the political spectrum will say it isn’t actually leadership. If the above paragraph is describing President George W. Bush building a coalition to invade Iraq--well, either President Bush building a coalition to invade Iraq--that’s leadership in the minds of Republicans. If the above paragraph described President Obama crafting a treaty on climate change or Iran’s nuclear program, that’s leadership to Democrats.
Sadly, the concept of leadership is amorphous. Imprecise. Unclear. Vague. Almost so vague as to be meaningless and unhelpful. And nothing demonstrates this better than the Republican candidates critiques of President Obama’s leadership.
“You know, the fact of the matter is the world is desperate for our leadership. Sometimes they may -- they may make a remark here or there that we don't like, but frankly, the world needs us. And we have an opportunity now to assemble a coalition of the civilized people, those who respect civilization, the rights of women, the rights to protest, to be able to reassert our leadership all across this globe again and make sure this century is going to be the best we've ever seen.”
Rebuttal: Except that Obama has led the world on at least three major issues: Iran, climate change and free trade. And on each of those issues, he was stymied by a Republican Congress. (Or as some commentators pointed out, one half of one half of one third of America’s government prevents action for the entire world.) It turns out, the world is desperate for American leadership, but that “leadership” fits with Democratic issues more than Republican ones.
“Ours was intended to be a citizen government. This is about more than replacing a D with an R. We need a leader who will help us take our government back....The truth is this, the big problem, we need a leader in Washington who understands how to get something done, not to talk about it, not to propose it, to get it done.”
Rebuttal: Again, it is hard not to look at Obama’s foreign policy initiatives and not see a whole lot of accomplishment. See the three issues mentioned above. But hand-in-hand with the accomplishment has been Republican intransigence. For example, the defining failure of his administration--not being able to close Guantanamo--isn’t/wasn’t his fault. Republicans refuse to close that base. You can’t adamantly oppose a sitting President on every issue, then fault him for not leading.
“Serious times require strong leadership, that's what at stake right now.”
“No, a good deal maker will make great deals, but we'll do it the way our founders thought it should be done. People get together, they make deals.”
Rebuttal: Nonsense gibberish aside, turns out that President Obama got a deal on Iran specifically by getting people in a room together. Go to Fred Kaplan at Slate to see the specifics.
"[Putin’s] running his country, and at least he's a leader. Unlike what we have in this country."
At this point, Trump is putting leadership in the same category as running roughshod over your opposition. Or dictatorship. We don’t even need to rebut that.
The issue isn’t that Obama can’t lead. It is that the definition of leadership has been warped by Republicans writ large. Saying, “We don’t like President Obama because he disagrees with us,” sounds childish and self-evident. Yes, of course the leader of the opposing party disagrees with you on most issues. “Leadership” isn’t “doing what I want”. Fred Kaplan has also covered this at Slate. Dan Drezner summed this up perfectly:
“One of the memes that political scientists like to mock to within an inch of its life is the “Why won’t the president lead?” lament that occasionally bubbles up among the pundit class. This is an easy meme to mock because, frequently, the reason the president isn’t doing the thing that the pundit wants is because of pesky structural constraints like the Constitution or pesky political constraints like the opposition party.”
Republicans usually take it as a point of pride to axiomatically oppose any policy Obama endorses. So when Obama came out in support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he was endorsing a Republican-friendly issue: free trade. That issue also required tons of leadership with other countries. So Republicans had to twist themselves in knots to somehow still insult the deal while not trying to submarine a free-trade agreement.
But it required tons of global and domestic leadership. So did keeping together a coalition of countries with competing interests to agree to stricter agreements on Iran. But Obama did it.
And he topped it off by again supporting a deal on climate change in Paris. The only thing he couldn’t control was discord at home on those same issues. But he was leading on the global stage. It may not have been the leadership Republicans wanted, but it was leadership nonetheless.