The Dangerous Leadership Vacuum in Washington

Washington Matters

The Dangerous Leadership Vacuum in Washington

Frank Rich wonders in the New York Times whether Obama is having his Katrina moment, an irreversible failure that convinces the public that the administration is too incompetent to govern. I think it's way too early to draw that conclusion, but it's become increasingly clear -- and quite alarming -- that the people who run Washington, beginning with Obama, are failing to provide the kind of leadership we desperately need if the U.S is to keep this financial crisis from getting a whole lot worse than it needs to be.

The AIG bonus scandal exposed a huge problem, but what's far worse is the way everyone has reacted to it. The public's outrage is understandable but out of proportion because few people really understand what's at stake. Congress, rather than lead a calm, measured response, rushed to get in front of the outrage, determined to act whether the action proposed made any real sense. Members also engaged in a ridiculous blame game to see who could benefit the most politically (Trust me, there's more than enough blame to go around.) The news media, especially the 24-hour nonstop trouble-making cable networks and blogs, did what they always do --- added senseless comment and hype instead of trying to help us understand the problem and the implications of the proposed "solutions."

Obama actually gets all this, but he seems completely unable to take control and show leadership. He doesn't like the House-passed bill to seize the bonuses through probably illegal after-the-fact taxation and he's working on a more reasonable plan to bring sense to the bonus system. But he's about a week too late.

He's also very late in persuading us that he has a grip on the bigger problem of financial liquidity. His economic team is finally ready to flesh out some of the details, and instead of feeling reassured, everyone is scared stiff to see the details.


Obama has to find a better way to communicate, which in this case, is truly the more important part of leadership. Yes, getting the plan right is crucial, but confidence is equally important and Obama hasn't done a good job of that at all. His economic team happens to be the only one out there (other than Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke) with any ideas at all. Republicans are just taking potshots, and Wall Street just looks for easy answers that don't exist. But Obama needs to ask for patience in a far more consistent and pressing way.

I tend to agree with Thomas Friedman, who argued in the New York Times Sunday, that Obama is way overdue in having a serious talk with the American people -- one that explains the depth of the problem, the need and kind of sacrifice it requires, and why patience is necessary. Above all, he has to demonstrate in ways large and small, though words and actions, that he and his team know what they are doing.

It's not too late to pull back form a Katrina moment, but it soon will be.