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Wednesday, January 16, 2008


posted by on January 16 at 14:00 PM

There’s a very interesting debate shaping up between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama over leadership styles. On Monday, Obama told the editorial board of the Reno Gazette-Journal:

I have a pretty good sense of my strengths and my weaknesses.

I am very good at teasing out from people who are smarter than me what the issues are and how we resolve them. I don’t think there is anybody in this race who can inspire the American people better than I can. And I don’t think there is anybody in this race who can bridge differences … better than I can.

But I’m not an operating officer. Some in this debate around experience seem to think the job of the president is to go in and run some bureaucracy. Well, that’s not my job. My job is to set a vision of ‘here’s where the bureaucracy needs to go.’

The full video of the interview is here. Many have remarked that the leadership style described by Obama above sounds a lot like the leadership style of George W. Bush—that he’s all about the big vision, and it’s left to the smart people around him to work out the details. There was some discussion of this at last night’s debate. (Wish I could find a YouTube clip of that moment, but can’t—can anyone out there help?) If I remember correctly, Obama said that the big stylistic difference between him and Bush is that he values dissenting opinions and has the ability to change course. Clinton, during the debate, pressed her more hands-on leadership style, and today she continued that line of argument in this television appearance:

I don’t know how much traction this will gain with voters, but I find it a really fascinating, if somewhat academic, discussion: What style of leadership gets more done, the “hands-on” approach or the “big-vision” approach? (I say somewhat academic because in reality, I think, anyone in the Oval Office is probably forced to use both approaches; they’re not mutually exclusive.)

UPDATE: Found the clip. Obama talks about the “operating officer” quote at about 3:20 and Clinton compares Obama’s management style to Bush’s at about 8:20. But the whole clip involves a back-and-forth between Obama and Clinton over leadership (with a long interlude from Edwards on his mill-town upbringing and his passion for fighting for the middle class).

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After what we've just been through (Bush 43) we desperately need a leader who can reset the big-picture vision for our country's direction and inspire Americans of all stripes and political persuasions to believe we're a democracy again. That leader must have an appreciation for nuance, as well as for viewpoints on policy issues that differ from his own. A high-caliber White House Chief of Staff with gravitas (think Tom Daschle) coupled with a strong cabinet can make the trains run on time. We don't need a manager, we need a President. A President Obama, that is.

Posted by Trey | January 16, 2008 2:25 PM

This reminds me of the whole Bush "common man" approach in the 2000 campaign, basically portraying Al Gore as a know-it-all intellectual and all-around geeky brainiac while Bush is simply an average Joe. I never understood why that would be a good argument...I WANT the president to be smarter than me and most everyone else, and likewise I want them to be hands-on in terms of running the show, all the details of the show, not just the "big picture".

Obama should be careful about seeming to be a similar figurehead to George Bush who appears to leave the actual running of the bureaucracy to others. Just the idea, however unlikely, that Obama could be puppeteered a la the Cheney/Wolfowitz/Rove-type triumvirate is frightening. I realize he's just talking about delegating details, but still...he should emphasize that he can hold the reins of government firmly in-hand.

Posted by Mittens Schrodinger | January 16, 2008 2:27 PM

Please, spare me another big picture incompetent president a la Bush or Reagan. Give me someone who knows how things work, knows where they want the country to go, and can state the destination in thought out complete sentences. We should be electing both know how and leadership.

Posted by LMSW | January 16, 2008 2:35 PM

Like it or not, Bush's vision leadership was very effective. You may not like that vision, but he managed to do what he wanted to do.

The question then is whether you agree with Obama's vision. If he is elected, it's very likely he'll be able to persuade people to follow him.

Democrats rely too much on intellectual wonkiness. That doesn't move people to action.

I daresay, however, that Obama has the intellectual fortitude to make good decisions as well as the ability to lead and persuade.

Posted by Medina | January 16, 2008 2:36 PM

I remember the candidates' answers to this question, "What's your greatest strength; what's your greatest weakness?"

Clinton and Edwards's answers were just the typical phony, run-of-the-mill drivel you expect to hear out of politicians' mouths. Both their answers went something along the lines of, "My greatest sin is I just care too much about the American people."

Obama actually gave a refreshingly real and frank answer. Then, when Hillary tried to attack this actual admission of weakness with the George W. Bush comparison, he did a great job of parrying it.

Sure, the ability to come across as authentic and frank and not just another politician is not reason alone to elect a candidate. And yet, with Obama, it speaks to the greater potential of his leadership.

How? There's a great column a month ago by The New York Times's David Brooks that gives a better answer than I could and really gets into the same questions of character and leadership this debate question provoked. Excerpts:

Obama is an inner-directed man in a profession filled with insecure outer-directed ones.

… Obama also has powers of observation that may mitigate his own inexperience and the isolating pressures of the White House.

… Obama demonstrated those powers in “Dreams From My Father” and still reveals glimpses of the ability to step outside his own ego and look at reality in uninhibited and honest ways.

Posted by cressona | January 16, 2008 2:41 PM

it might be the same as bush -- as it should be. no one can be the smartest at everything, so you do need the support of experts. and we do hate a know-it-all. but given that obama is smarter than bush, that means two things:

1) he'll have to surround himself with smarter people than bush surrounded himself with -- good.

2) he'll be able to make better judgment calls after the experts weigh in.

Posted by infrequent | January 16, 2008 2:43 PM

Bush isn't such a terrible leader because of his inattention to detail. The president typically isn't concerned with dotting every I. He's a terrible leader because he values loyalty and ideological purity over basic competence, and fills his team with people who are also inattentive or indifferent to detail. (And who also scoff at basic competence.)

Posted by tsm | January 16, 2008 2:45 PM

The fact that Obama admitted to an actual weakness rather than some bullshit job interview weakness-that-is-actually-a-strength answer should tell you something about him.

Whom the president appoints is the real issue, not whether they are into the big picture or the details.

We can guess that Ron Sims will get a job from Clinton in return for his support. Is that payback for a crony, as Bush would do? Or picking the best person for the job?

Who will Obama appoint?

Posted by elenchos | January 16, 2008 2:56 PM

@8-McClurkin and Oprah, obviously!

Posted by Mittens Schrodinger | January 16, 2008 2:59 PM


My mother, a die-hard Edwards fan until he attacked Clinton's "emotional moment" as un-Presidential, said your very argument to me a month ago: Obama's elevation of idealism and philosophy over specific policy totally reminded her of Bush's central argument in 2000.

I haven't mentioned it until now because I really like Obama (more so after last night) and hate comparing him to that dingleberry Bush. But your post made me go "aha! Mom's not the only one!"

Posted by Big Sven | January 16, 2008 4:00 PM

I think if people look at this from a work perspective, what they like in a boss, I don't think this helps Hillary at all. Everyone hates a micro manager for a boss.

Posted by Mike of Renton | January 16, 2008 4:06 PM

(By "people" and "everyone" he means Canadians, methinks. ;))

Posted by unPC | January 16, 2008 4:11 PM

I think Cheney is the micromanager in the current administration and look what he did with the war. The big picture approach is better in my view.

Posted by Jersey | January 16, 2008 4:13 PM

@4 Bush managed to do what he wanted not because of his magnificent vision but because after 9/11 congress and the american people abdicated their rights and critical thinking skills for a 'get the terrorists at any cost' mob mind set.

Yes, Obama has a vision and is more dynamic that clinton/edwards. However, Clinton has a very real vision too, and she has a much, much better understanding of how to translate her vision into an achievable reality than obama. That's why she should be president.

Posted by freshnycman | January 16, 2008 4:35 PM

Indeed, @14; she did such a fantastic job of translating her vision in 1993. No wonder we have universal health care now.

Posted by tsm | January 16, 2008 5:54 PM

I want a detail person. The damn White House tennis court schedule has been a mess ever since Carter left.

Posted by kk | January 16, 2008 6:02 PM

@15, yes, and 1993 is 15 years ago and Hillary has learned a lot of how things actually happen in the beltway through e-x-p-e-r-i-e-n-c-e during that time. Obama today, with all his lofty ideas, is where she was then. Period.

Posted by freshnycman | January 16, 2008 7:02 PM

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