I am a fan of smart compromise. It’s the kind of compromise that makes real progress towards solving a problem while addressing, at least in part, the interests of both sides. It’s never easy. It takes patience, creativity, a thorough knowledge of the details, a sense of urgency, and a determination to make it happen. It’s what we so badly need, but so sadly lack, in Washington. There are many smart middle ground solutions. Our leaders just can’t get there.
This challenge was center stage in my mind as I watched the debates. Of course, I had heard of Romney’s success as Bain Capital’s stellar CEO, as the savior of the Olympics, and as a Republican governor who made things happen with a Democratic legislature. But what most impressed me in the debates is that Romney actually told us how he did it. He met weekly with leaders from both sides to pound out the details. He demanded an ongoing, face-to-face dialogue that insured a perpetual focus on specifics and potential middle ground solutions.
Meetings are a core element of strong leadership. They break down barriers. They expose strengths and weaknesses. They quickly shred bravado talk that is designed only to scare and assign blame. They confirm the old adage, “It’s easy to talk tough from a distance.” In short, meetings matter.
But I question whether the President would agree with this statement. Recent events, the debates and campaign rhetoric have revealed a great deal about Obama. He has given us many reasons to doubt his ability to lead. But, in attempting to assess his potential for leadership at this most critical juncture, nothing seems more relevant than his refusal to create, through meetings, an ongoing, constructive dialogue on our most daunting challenges.
During the first month of his presidency, Obama set the tone with the Republican leadership by stating, “There’s a philosophical difference, but I won. I’m president. So we’re going to prevail on that.”
By the end of 2010, Obama aids, when questioned, could not recall a single one-on-one meeting or substantive phone call between Obama and Republican House leader John Boehner. During 2011, there was the famed Obama-Boehner golf outing (see Obama/Boehner Golf Outing: Scary Potential) and the mid-year last minute debt ceiling mess, but then another dry spell – this time seven months without a single meeting until the two leaders met on February 29, 2012. By the time the campaigns were in full swing during the third quarter of 2012, Obama and Boehner had met only twice during 2012 – that February meeting and a May 16 meeting, both bipartisan, bicameral meetings with leaders from both parties and designed only for politically tuned statements, not substantive work. It caused one White House spokesperson to make the following remarkable observation, “In terms of the President’s relationship with Congress in 2012 …, the president is no longer tied to Washington.”
But Obama’s weak meeting agenda goes beyond Boehner. Unlike his predecessors, who seldom missed Presidential daily security intelligence briefings, Obama has missed more than 56 percent of such briefing during his term in office. And when questioned in July 2012 on why the President had not met with his much-publicized Council on Jobs and Competitiveness for more than six months, White House press secretary Jay Carney could only say, “the president has obviously got a lot on his plate.” Carney was right – over 100 fund raisers during the same timeframe. As compared to strategic, problem-solving sessions with the opposition, fund raisers are fun, and speeches are easy. But they aren’t leadership.
This anti-meeting track record explains a great deal.
It explains why the federal government hasn’t had a budget in over three years.
It explains why no person who pays income tax knows what his or her federal tax burden will be two months from now.
It explains why hopelessly screwy deals have been forced at the very last minute to politically band-aid mammoth problems that everyone saw coming for years.
It explains the unthinkable downgrade of our nation’s credit rating.
It explains why it’s impossible for a job-creating small business to plan long-term.
It explains why the risk of an American debt crisis – a crisis that would seriously damage the dollar, immediately threaten Social Security and Medicare benefits for all existing recipients, and drive down the standard of living of all middle- and low-income earners – grows stronger every day.
It explains why it’s now fashionable to proclaim that Washington is broken.
This anti-meeting track record’s “It explains” list goes on and on. It’s long. It’s ugly. And each item on the list points to what is now, at this specific point in time, the most important item on the list: It explains why it’s time for a change at the top.
– October 30, 2012