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November 2, 2012 5:20 am

Being a Leader or Looking Like a Leader: Hurricane Gives Second Wind to Obama

avatar by Michael Widlanski

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President Barack Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie look at storm damage along the coast of New Jersey on Marine One. Photo: White House.

Hurricane Sandy has caused much death and destruction, but it may save Barack Obama, because it gives him a chance to look like a leader just when he seems less and less like president of the United States.

Looking presidential and being presidential are required to be president of the US, a bit like knowing how to “talk the talk and walk the walk.”

In times of natural disasters or national crises, leaders know they will be judged by their ability to inspire as much as by their capacity to analyze, to decide and to act.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” yelled President Franklin Roosevelt, the day after Japan attacked America, while Abraham Lincoln spurred a divided Union with a promise of “a new birth of freedom” in his Gettysburg Address.

President Lincoln showed how to inspire and how to act in America’s Civil War, while Roosevelt and Britain’s  Winston Churchill did the same in World War II.

George W. Bush acted strongly against terror after 9-11, but  he was not able to make a strong case for many of his policies—particularly the war policy in Iraq. So, his presidency weakened and floundered because of his failure to communicate.

Ronald Reagan evaded harm from the Iran-Contra affair because he was able to inspire and because he had a reservoir of good will from the public, and Bill Clinton tapped similar qualities so that his presidency survived his impeachment.

President Barack Obama is clearly a leader who feels more comfortable inspiring than in actually wielding the levers of power. His presidency has been damaged by poor implementation of his own health care program and sloppy decision-making on budgetary matters, such as the failure to implement a budget for three years.

But at some crisis points in his career, Obama looked and sounded good enough to save his candidacy or his presidency. Two examples were his speech on racism and Jeremiah Wright during the 2008 campaign and the speech on violence after the 2011 shooting attack in Arizona where six died and 13 were wounded, including Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AR).

Even Richard Nixon saved himself with his dramatic “Checkers speech” in 1952 just when Dwight Eisenhower was considering dumping Nixon from the GOP ticket.

Other presidents like Jerry Ford and Jimmy Carter floundered when they looked or sounded clumsy or unconvincing amid crisis and on the eve of election.

Obama’s economic policies have largely failed, and his claims to be a strong leader on foreign policy and against terror have looked especially hollow in recent weeks, as his assumptions about the so-called “Arab Spring,” defeating  terror, and engaging Iran and Russia appeared  to be empty boasts.

Obama is hoping that pictures of him touring flooded parts of New Jersey will crowd out images of a leader who has executed a Nixon-like cover-up of high-level negligence and policy blindness in Libya, Egypt, Syria and Iran.

The president clearly believes that wearing the mantle of commander in chief, touring hospitals, gesturing decisively in photo-ops  and getting praise from New Jersey’s Republican governor will erase the lingering picture of a president who has been indecisive or who has decided poorly for most of his four years in office.

Obama’s slogan is “Forward,” but voters will decide whether his well-documented and energized reaction to Hurricane Sandy is not what poet TS Eliot called  “paralyzed force, gesture without motion,”  in his epic poem “The Hollow Men.”

It will be interesting to see which way the wind blows on November 6.

Dr. Michael Widlanski, an expert on Arab politics and communications, is the author of  Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat published by  Threshold/Simon and Schuster. A former reporter, correspondent and editor, respectively at The New York Times, Cox Newspapers and The Jerusalem Post, he was  Strategic Affairs Advisor in Israel’s Ministry of Public Security and teaches at Bar Ilan University.

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  • Tom Powers


    Sorry, but that’s from FDR’s first inaugural address, in 1933. Apart from that, Mr. Widlansky’s unrestrained Obama-bashing shows him for what he is, a right-wing ideologue masquerading as a scholar.

  • Sanda Eschmann

    So what if we went to some other state not affected by Sandy and replaced stuff there, say out of date power grids, old bridges, etc. without having to suffer from closed businesses, cancelled flights and trains, etc.?

  • Sadie

    They are not by any measure “so-called failures” but are more akin to complete and utter malfeasance by Obama and the administration.

    $6 trillion in new national debt under Obama…after he promised to decrease the deficit.

    Billions of taxpayer dollars gambled on “green” companies like Solyndra, NextEra, Light Squared, Ener1, Solar Trust and many others — all of which went bankrupt.

    An intentional refusal to enforce federal immigration laws.

    Operation Fast & Furious — a government-sponsored illegal gun-running scheme designed to purposely go awry so as to induce public outcry for gun control.

    Increased the percentage of Americans dependent on food stamps to unprecedented levels (now over 15% of the nation’s population).

    Handed out over 1,200 waivers to politically connected donors exempting them from the onerous requirements of Obamacare.

    Greatly expanding the number of unaccountable “czars,” which essentially amounts to unilaterally adding new federal departments with no congressional oversight — leading to a true “bureaucracy” in the original sense (rule by unelected bureaucrats).

    Using taxpayer dollars to bail out the private pension funds of autoworkers’ unions at GM & Chrysler.

    Illegally ending the welfare-to-work requirements passed by Congress.

    Doling out $800 billion in stimulus cash for “shovel-ready” jobs that didn’t exist — the money just evaporated with no measurable economic benefit.

    That’s a very short list. At the end of a longer list is Benghazi.

    Typical response above, blame someone else for the failures of self. Golden-calf idol worshipping at its worst.

    – Stopped American oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, allowing other nations with worse environmental records to drill instead — thereby managing to both weaken our economy and damage the environment simultaneously.

    – Proposed in 2008 to intentionally bankrupt the coal industry — and now lies to voters and workers in coal-producing regions about his true intent.

    – In a primary debate against Hillary Clinton in 2008, Obama said he would never force people to buy health insurance, since those without it couldn’t afford to buy it. Less than two years later, he rammed through Obamacare, which does indeed force people to buy health insurance.

  • Steven Schlussel

    the author clearly has an axe to grind. Obama’s so called “failures” have more to do with Republican sabotage than his lack of vision and commitment. just more spin

  • Prof Asher J Matathias

    There is no better alternative than to reelect our President! Ironically, the very people — Colin Powell and Michael Bloomberg —who together could have formed a third ticket have enthusiastically declared their support for President Obama! In a second term, the incumbent will pursue further lasting reforms, while maintaining the closest collaboration with Israel. More, his reelection will confirm that his 2008 triumph was not a fluke, and that our nation is becoming more tolerant, open to opportunity for more and varied populations, truly a wonder for which to be proud. Notice, no mention of his putative challenger, for he is destined to become a tiny postscript in history, having engaged in a vitriolic, mendacious campaign not worthy to be seriously considered for the highest office in the land! As to my nominal Party, having received a well-deserved rebuke on November 6, can begin the process of broadening its base on November 7, ridding itself of the Tea Party, racists, and reactionaries whose war on women, gays, immigrants, minorities make such icons as Lincoln, TR, and Ike cry …