Friends and I kept seeing groups of Poles who’d taken planes or 20-hour bus rides to be here for the canonization of John Paul II. They did not look wealthy. A lot of them wouldn’t have had tickets to the big mass because the Vatican kept saying there were no tickets. (In fact there were, and they were thoughtfully color-coded.) A lot of them knew they’d spend a rainy night on the floor of a church or, some of them, wrapped in plastic parkas as they slept on the street on yoga mats they carried on their backpacks. Many would watch the proceedings on a Jumbotron in a piazza far from St. Peter’s. They didn’t care. They came anyway because they loved him. He was enmeshed in their lives, and whether they’d known him or not they felt enmeshed in his. Lech Walesa, at an American reception, seemed to speak for them when I asked how he felt to see his old friend elevated. “I feel I will have a friend in Heaven to greet me if I get there,” he said.
In the days before and after the canonization, I couldn’t help reflect on what a leader is, and how it is that great leaders engender gratitude, loyalty and love.
You have to stand for something. You have to suffer for it. (John Paul was shot and almost killed, and he spent the last third of his pontificate in constant physical distress. He kept showing up anyway.) You have to be brave. (He wasn’t afraid of any earthly power, not even the Soviet Union.) You have to stand by your beliefs as long as you know they are right; you have to speak and write the truth. Explaining what you believe involves trusting people to hear and consider; it assumes they will respond fairly and even with their highest selves. In this way you develop a relationship with people, an ongoing conversation between your articulations and their private thoughts. You are talking to them. When eventually they respond, they are talking to you.
Great leaders are clear, honest, suffer for their stands and are brave. They conduct a constant dialogue. At the end, when they are gone, the crowd declares what they heard. When John Paul died, they issued their judgment: He was a saint.
Popes aren’t presidents, and presidents aren’t saints. Both operate within wildly different realities and have wholly different obligations, so to compare the two isn’t quite just. And yet I couldn’t help think the past week of President Obama, whom I started to think of as poor Obama—whose failings as a leader are now so apparent, and seem so irremediable, partly because they spring from not only his nature and personality but his misunderstanding of what leaders do.
Does he stand for something? I suppose he stands for many things, but you can’t quite narrow it down and sum it up. A problem with his leadership is that there’s always the sense that he’s not quite telling you his core and motivating beliefs. There are a lot of rounded banalities. There are sentiments and impulses. But he isn’t stark, doesn’t vividly cut through. There’s a sense he’s telling people as much as he feels he can within the parameters of political safety, and no more.
As for speaking truthfully, well, he speaks, in many venues and sometimes at great length. But rather than persuade the other side, he knocks down a lot of straw men and deploys no affection or regard for those who disagree with him. He says the great signature program of his presidency will do one thing and it turns out to do another. He is evasive about Benghazi and the other scandals. He winds up with polls showing Americans do not see him as a truth teller. That’s treacherous for a leader. People give politicians a lot of leeway because they think so little of them. But they don’t like it when they’re being played.
Is he brave? Well, he can take a punch. He’s not afraid to be foolhardy, either in statements about red lines or in the U.S. role in Libya. But he seems increasingly passive. He is not passive when it comes to his political fortunes—he goes out and speaks and tries to rally the base—but even there, and certainly when it comes to governing, he seems bored, as if operating at a remove. Valerie Jarrett was once quoted saying he’s so exceptionally gifted that he’s been bored most of his life. It seems to me more likely an exceptionally gifted person would be exceptionally interested in and alive to the wonder and drama of things. I think her meaning was that only the most demanding and important of jobs would consistently arouse his engagement and focus. But he seems pretty bored as president.
He’s not a dynamist. He doesn’t seem excited about all the possibilities for America.
To be in Europe is to realize, again and at first hand, that America has experienced a status shift. Europeans know we are powerful—we have the most drones and bombs and magic robot soldiers—but they don’t think we are strong. They’ve seen our culture; we exported it. The Internet destroyed our ability to keep under wraps, at least for a while, our embarrassments. People everywhere read of our daily crimes and governmental scandals. The people of old Europe thought we were great not only because we were wealthy but because we were good. We don’t seem so good now. And they know we’re not as wealthy as we were.
In these circumstances it would be quite wonderful to have a leader who is a deeply believing enthusiast who could tell the world—and us—that we can, and will, turn it all around.
Pollsters always say a politician has to project optimism. I think what they have to project is belief, and when people see it they appreciate it and become more optimistic. Does Mr. Obama project belief? Or does he project something more like doubt, or inertia? How wonderful it would be to see an American president appreciate all the possibilities of becoming a great energy-producing nation—all the new technologies and jobs, all the rebound they’d bring. To have a leader who feels and conveys a palpable joy in the transformative nature of this new world. Instead what we see is a ticket-checking approval, coupled with a wary, base-pandering, foot-dragging series of decisions such as the latest delay of the Keystone pipeline. It looks like a kind of historical lethargy, or listlessness.
The aspect of the presidency he seems to enjoy most is the perks—the splashy vacations, the planes, the hoops, the golf. When his presidency is over there will be the perks of the post-presidency—foundations, libraries, million-dollar speeches, staff, protection. A literary agent estimated he’ll get up to $20 million for his memoirs, Michelle Obama perhaps $12 million.
So no, you don’t get the impression he’ll have to suffer for where he stands, or who he is.