Monday, December 29, 2008


Even before Barak Obama has been inaugurated, there has been some grumbling that he might not be exactly faithful to some of the principles upon which he campaigned. In point of fact, events usually require pragmatism over idealism. Some of the people that yearned for Obama as a "new kind of leader" will discover they are much better off with the old kind of manager.

Every so often an American president is both a great leader and a great manager; Washington, Lincoln, maybe Teddy Rooselvelt. At the same time, men who showed great aptitude for leadership, like U.S. Grant and John Kennedy proved to be not so hot presidents. Jimmy Carter was an awful president because he was a dismal failure as a manager; specifically, he could not ably distinguish between those issues upon which he could prescribe and those which he needed to effectively manage as events took their course. Bill Clinton, despite having an ideology similar to that of Carter was a much better president because he was both a more effective manager and a better politician.

"Leaders" don't seem to fit so well in a liberal democracy. They seem to be much more prevalent in North Korea, where Kim Jong Il carries the title "Dear Leader," Nazi Germany (Der Furher), Iran, where Ali Khamanei holds the title "Supreme Leader," and communist Cuba (El Comandante, El Jefe Maximo). Even second tier despots like Idi Amin polished their leadership credential with titles like "His Excellency, President for Life Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor," which presumably looks impressive on a resume under "Positions Held." Napoleon was a great leader, but I doubt his chances in a fair election.

A sober President Obama will realize that his task is to manage events over which he has varying degrees of control, rather than to lead a pluralistic society on some utopian goose-chase. A good president knows enough to stay out of the way of a decent, resourceful and energetic people as they continue a spectacular journey that has gone on for more than two centuries, rather than presuming to lead them to some fantasy land that exists only in rhetoric. Great presidents must tend always to the mundane and the humdrum, even when rising to meet great challenges. A free and self reliant people do not need to be led to political paradise, they need someone to make sure the lights stay on, that the barbarians are kept from the gate, and that the institutions upon with they rely operate fairly.

Many of the things that starry-eyed Obama supporters hoped he would accomplish are simply beyond his power to do so. He is constrained not only by the Constitution, but by the unintended consequences of well intentioned but poorly thought out policies. The laws of economics and the interests of America's rivals will not subside under the force of Mr. Obama's personality.

The first priority for Mr. Obama must be to safeguard individual liberty, and to do so in ways that are likely to be unpopular, such as opposing speech codes and erosion of rights of conscience. He should realize that America's greatness is a result of liberty and equality of opportunity, not the lethargic homage of a cult of personality.