All seem to agree that political leadership in currently in short supply. But, there’s less agreement as to what good leadership would look like. That becomes clear when one examines the current conflicting critiques.
On the one hand we’re told that politicians cautiously hold a finger to the wind before acting and lack the courage to get ahead of their constituents. On the other, when politicians step forward—as Obama did on the TPP or ACA or David Cameron did on EU affiliation or Angela Merkel on immigration—their positions are deemed proof of the growing gulf between the governing elite and the masses who would be impacted.
These are not precisely opposite sides of the same coin, but there’s quite a bit of tension between them, and it is difficult to name a politician who avoids both criticisms. The last US President I can recall who actually asked for sacrifice in pursuit of a common goal was Jimmy Carter, who asked us to moderate our use of heating and air conditioning.
His request was not well received then and hasn’t won greater applause since. However flawed they may be, elected officials are generally not stupid and Carter’s lesson has not been forgotten.
Instead politicians attempt to buy—or at least rent—voters with goodies ranging from college loans, to promises of higher retirement payments and more affordable healthcare. That’s more a short-term tactic than a strategy, one constantly challenged by voters who respond by saying, “Thanks, but what have you done for me lately?”
Consider the care of Medicare Part D, which provides optional prescription drug coverage to millions of older Americans. It was the largest expansion of benefits since Medicare began 30 years earlier, committing the government to helping pay drug costs for the first time, enacted with bipartisan Congressional support for President George Bush’s initiative.
I’ve yet to hear a Medicare beneficiary express gratitude that the government was helping pay pill bills, but I can’t count how many times I’ve heard complaints because the program is administered by private insurers rather than having Medicare set drug prices, a decision construed as political cowardice.
President Obama’s enactment of the Affordable Care Act, under similar circumstances, elicits a similar response, despite the fact that its reduced America’s uninsured population by half, accelerated modernization of the entire healthcare system and may be responsible for the moderation of cost increases. The public response is a chorus of complaints about how it requires some to pay more while failing to mandate Medicaid expansion.
These responses are not unique to health issues. Our government’s response, again largely bipartisan, to the Great Recession of 2008, was arguably the most successful of any industrialized nation and America’s economy is healthier than others because of that. Elected officials involved in that experiment are still paying a price for being too lenient with the bankers and not generous enough to overextended homebuyers.
Not surprisingly our leaders have learned that no attempt at leadership goes unpunished—ranging from (again bipartisan) attempts to reduce deficit spending by reforming entitlements to rationalizing our immigration policy. That history tends to make them cautious. Their resulting caution is characterized as dysfunctional government.
To be sure, our politicians serve voluntarily and shouldn’t be surprised by the uncomfortable heat in the governmental kitchen. They should strive to do better—and many do. They should be open to as many compromises as their voters will permit.
Political leadership is a heavy lift in the best of times. In an era when political followership is in extremely short supply, it is even more challenging.
For 16 years, Jim Jaffe worked for House Democrats who served on the Ways and Means Committee, apprenticing with Representatives Green, Gibbons and Gephardt before working for Chairman Dan Rostenkowski.
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