When I was in college my friend Dave and I would often fall asleep at some point during our millionth screening of Braveheart. We would often put the film on after the bars had closed and we had grabbed our drunken treat of the night and were not yet ready for bed. At the time we were training to be Marine officers and very interested in learning what it took to be a good leader. Near the beginning of the film there was a quote which I often thought about (at still think about):
You admire this man, this William Wallace. Uncompromising men are easy to admire. He has courage; so does a dog. But it is exactly the ability to compromise that makes a man noble. And understand this: Edward Longshanks is the most ruthless king ever to sit on the throne of England. And none of us, and nothing of Scotland will remain, unless we are as ruthless. Give ear to our nobles. Knowing their minds is the key to the throne.
We would scoff at this quote. In our youth and lack of exposure to the world we felt that uncompromising was the way of the greatest leaders. That may still be true, but I have learned that it definitely is not true of the greatest rulers. Indeed, the greatest rulers are often those that are the greatest to compromise. Human nature being what it is, you will very rarely have complete agreement with a course of action. Multiply the amount of people a decision will affect and you necessarily multiply the different opinions (both rational and irrational) which will impact your decision before it is taken and laud or critique it after it is taken. This is a fundamental “problem” with ruling in a democracy.
Ryan Lizza has written a fantastically interesting piece for The New Yorker. He dives deeply into a trove of memos which circulated the Obama White House during the first term of that administration. He assembles a very interesting piece which does a great job of detailing the tensions that any President may face. I encourage everyone to read it, here.
It is interesting for me, given my current diaspora state (relatively torn between Europe, America, and Africa), to compare the political processes which take place in a very new, somewhat inchoate democracy – Somaliland – to a very old, overly complex democracy – the US – while comparing both, which I view as an insider, to the relatively “clean” democratic processes that the Europeans embody. One of the difficult things in an independent executive system, where the governing functions of creating laws and putting those laws into action are separated between two branches of government, is that we tend to blame the “big man” for all of the problems. This happens in Somaliland just as often as it happens in the US. The realities of Presidential campaigns often do a disservice by blurring the lines. Much of the debate during a Presidential campaign revolves around big or small policy ideas that the President will have very little to no control over. As I was telling someone the other day, a President has an ability to stop a legislative action it doesn’t want to allow but it has little ability to make a legislative body do something that that body does not want to do. Yet these big policy ideas are a function of modern politics. Firstly they are easier to discuss than the minutae of what a President really does. Secondly, it is a method of acting somewhat uniformly in our very much decentralized system.
Personally, reading the piece shows me what I was hoping to see. A President who has learned how to do what is possibly the most difficult and complex job on the planet. A President who remains willing to make compromises, but also has learned how to work the system. A President who still has standards and struggles to balance a bowing to the political winds with a deep devotion to his ideals.
While Obama cannot get a large piece of greenhouse gas passed through (right now) domestically, he has floated a ton of money for research, innovation, and implementation of greenhouse reduction initiatives in other countries. While Obama faces complete stonewalling from his own legislators on jobs (right now), he has figured out how to incentivize job growth and business creation in other countries with entrepreneurial grants and collaborative agreements dominating much of the AID/DOS grants I’ve seen lately. While Obama cannot push forward comprehensive immigration reform (right now), he has put in place policies which make it much easier to get US visas (while remaining within the legislative caps mandated by various amendments to the Immigration and Nationalization Act) and illegal immigration flows are down – particularly from Mexico. These are largely international examples for a couple of reasons. First it is my area of interest so I follow it closer. Second the President has fundamentally more power over foreign policy than domestic policy. Third, Hillary – despite how divisive she may or may not be – is a brilliant bureaucrat and many of these initiatives are coming from her shop.
No government is perfect, but where the President and his team have a reasonable amount of power I am genuinely pleased with what I see. There’s much to disagree with, but there is much more that I agree with. As we turn towards a full scale assault on us all with respect to choosing our next President one thing I would encourage everyone to do is to not get tricked by the red herrings of advertisements and debates and to focus on what the President can and does actually do on a daily / weekly / monthly / yearly basis. Choose wisely.
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