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