Presidential Leadership: Consistency Required
True leadership involves assuming responsibility in bad times as well as in good. As President Kennedy noted in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs, widely seen as being a ‘perfect failure’ in US foreign policy, “success has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan.” Despite the abject failure of the initiative he had inherited from Eisenhower and Nixon, Kennedy refused to allow anyone else assume to responsibility, telling the American public that he was categorically responsible for the failings.
Kennedy’s performance should be required for all aspiring politicians. Having made an error of judgement his timely public statement on the issue and refusal to blame others for his errors won him the support of the American electorate and his approval ratings actually increased. (“It’s like Eisenhower,” he quipped, “the worse I do the more popular I am!”
Not all American presidents are so smart. Despite his public adulation for the late president, Bill Clinton appeared not to have learnt this vital lesson when his Attorney General, Janet Reno, assumed public responsibility for the Waco fiasco. In a cabinet dominated by men, it was America’s first female Attorney General who appeared the most courageous by assuming responsibility. In contrast, Bill Clinton’s dithering on the issues appeared timid at best, and did little to inspire confidence in his leadership early in his presidency.
Some twenty years later, another Clinton finds themselves at the centre of a similar storm. For several days, speculation has mounted that President Obama was seeking to allocate blame for the Benghazi tragedy firmly at the door of the State Department. The Internet has been awash with observations as to how Hillary Clinton would react to being thrown ‘under the bus.’ The popularly held belief was that she wouldn’t stand for it. However, in the hours leading up to the second presidential election, Hillary took one for the team and declared that she was responsible.
This is an admirable, though shortsighted effort on her behalf. It demonstrates a very admirable ability to assume responsibility and be seen as a team player, which of course, many have questioned in her determination and drive to become the first female president. However, it may backfire in ways that could damage both her own presidential ambitions as well as those of her boss, Barack Obama.
By taking responsibility Hillary has placed herself squarely in the firing line for the administration’s critics and ensures that if she runs in 2016 this could come back to haunt her. More immediately, her announcement, which must surely have been signed off by the White House presents the president in a poor light. In his eagerness to allocate blame ahead of his debate with Mitt Romney, Obama has ensured that he will now be covering behind Hillary Clinton’s pantsuit, hardly an inspiring sight in a would-be Commander In Chief.
The move actually increased the pressure on the president going into this week’s debate. If he had responded to Romney’s attacks on the Benghazi tragedy by blaming Hillary, he would have appeared weak. However, when asked directly who refused the extra security in Libya, Obama’s answer was retrospective and failed to address the specific question. Instead, he asserted his responsibility, which completely contradicted the statement issued by the Secretary of State. When asked directly if the buck stopped with Hillary Clinton, Obama again insisted, “she works for me, I’m the president and I’m always responsible.” In doing so President Obama merely continued the process of sending mixed signals and further muddy the water’s of responsibility on the issue.
The president needs to take a look at the lessons from the Bay of Pigs and assert unambiguous leadership, not leave questions of responsibility to be pondered in time of national tragedy.