As I wrote yesterday, the 2012 presidential election will certainly involve a debate on issues, but will probably hinge on leadership and competence. Republicans wanting to make Barack Obama a one-term President will have to make a case for superior executive talent and experience and contrast that with Obama’s demonstrable failures as an executive and a leader. Mitt Romney makes the early case against Obama in today’s USA Today, saying that the nation does not need a Politician-In-Chief in times of crisis:
Has it come to this again? The president is meeting with his oil spill experts, he crudely tells us, so that he knows “whose ass to kick.” We have become accustomed to his management style — target a scapegoat, assign blame and go on the attack. To win health care legislation, he vilified insurance executives; to escape bankruptcy law for General Motors, he demonized senior lenders; to take the focus from the excesses of government, he castigated business meetings in Las Vegas; and to deflect responsibility for the deepening and lengthening downturn, he blames Wall Street and George W. Bush. But what may make good politics does not make good leadership. And when a crisis is upon us, America wants a leader, not a politician.
We saw leadership on Sept. 11, 2001. Then as now, black billows seemed to come from the center of the earth. Lives had been lost. The environmental impact was immeasurable. The looming economic impact from lost tourism was incalculable. Into the crisis walked Rudy Giuliani. While that was an incomparable human tragedy, how the mayor led New York City to recover is a useful model for the president.
Rudy camped out at Ground Zero — he didn’t hole up in his office or retreat to his residence. His presence not only reassured the people of New York that someone was in charge, it also enabled the mayor to assess the situation firsthand, to take the measure of the people he had on the ground, and to understand the scope of the crisis.
Giuliani is a good example for Romney to use, but one has to wonder whether Romney might be helping a competing contender for the 2012 nomination. Giuliani hasn’t exactly stayed silent during the Obama administration, and he refused to run for Governor or Senator in New York when he would have been highly competitive in both races. Giuliani may still have his eye on the top job, and after the bumbling of this administration in times of crisis, America’s Mayor would have a pretty good leg up on his competition.
Romney continues to contrast Giuliani’s performance in the days after 9/11 to make the unfavorable comparison to Obama:
What happens when men and women of various backgrounds, fields of expertise, and unfettered intellectual freedom come together to tackle a problem often exceeds any reasonable expectation. Ideas from one may cross-fertilize the thinking of another, yielding breakthroughs. The president of MIT told me that the university spent millions of dollars to build a bridge connecting two engineering departments that had been separated by a road — the potential for shared thinking made it more than worth the cost.
But even a gathering of experts won’t accomplish much unless a skilled leader uses their perspective to guide the recovery. So far, it has been the CEO of BP who has been managing the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The president surely can’t rely on BP — its track record is suspect at best: Its management of this crisis has been characterized by obfuscation and lack of preparation. And BP’s responsibilities to its shareholders conflict with the greater responsibility to the nation and to the planet. …
President Obama’s instigation of criminal investigations of BP at this juncture is classic diversion politics — and worse, it will engender bunker mentality at a time when collaboration and openness are most critical. BP’s actions and inactions are reprehensible; it must be made to pay the billions upon billions of dollars that this spill will ultimately cost. But call out the phalanx of lawyers later — solve the crisis today.
Most of these same criticisms have already been coming from the Right in the last couple of weeks. Some of them have even come from the Left, with Rolling Stone blasting Obama’s leadership. That doesn’t mean that the issue is off the table, though. Republicans need to keep hammering home the lack of leadership Obama and his team have demonstrated in this crisis, and establish that far from changing the way Washington works, Obama has indulged himself in slash-and-attack politics more than perhaps any President since Nixon while doing less than any in recent memory. “Diversion politics” is a good term for what Romney describes.
Time to look for real executive talent and leadership. Romney remains modest in this particular argument, eschewing any self-reference, but his argument in 2007-8 was that he alone had the executive experience and success necessary for the job, in both the private and public sectors. There will be more Republicans making that argument in 2011-2, and the field will almost certainly tilt to meet this basic argument against a second Obama term. Even if Romney may not be the ultimate beneficiary of it, he has the standing to frame the argument.