Leading from Behind: The Reluctant President and the Advisors Who Decide for Him

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Release Date: 
August 20, 2012
St. Martin's Press
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“. . . [a] scathing overall assessment of Mr. Obama’s leadership . . .”

Whether you are a Democrat, a Republican, or merely disgruntled, I dare you to read Leading From Behind.

The reason: Books are most helpful when the media starts picking winners and losers—conveniently leaving certain dots unconnected.

One example: How has Barack Obama actually performed as a leader despite those notoriously slender credentials we ignored? Richard Miniter probes even deeper. Have Mr. Obama’s character, personality, and habits of mind allowed him to perform effectively as a president beset by economic travails and political division?

Conventional media wisdom considers such questions self-evident. “Dude, didn’t he, like, save the economy and get Bin Laden?” Well, maybe so, but according to the author, “Barack Obama is the most mysterious manager of our age,” his appearance on the national stage “like a meteor dropping from the night sky.” Moreover, Obama’s experience prior to the White House “was always at the lectern or the committee table” and never in leadership positions.

To assess the president’s performance, Mr. Miniter presents “six pivotal decisions of the Obama years” to analyze “why the president decided as he did.” In addition to the Bin Laden raid, healthcare and the economy—“Debt and Taxes”—they include the troubled relationship with Israel, and that ongoing Justice Department debacle known as “Fast & Furious,” which channeled a thousand guns to the Mexican drug cartels.

The book’s first chapter, “The Women,” is more context than decision, outlining the key female influences on President Obama: Stanley Ann Dunham, his mother; Michelle Obama, his famously glamorous wife; Hillary Clinton, his one-time presidential rival and Secretary of State; and the mysterious Valerie Jarrett, an aristocrat from Chicago who sponsored the rise of both Barack and Michelle Obama.

The portrait of the president’s mother is a fascinating study in the roots of ambiguity: “No part of his identity was solidly locked in place. He was neither white nor black; neither American nor Asian nor African; neither Christian nor Muslim.” The overall result: “So Obama learned to live in his own head. It was safer there.”

A counterbalance of this uncertainty, Valerie Jarrett appears throughout the book as the president’s most trusted advisor, a West Wing influence so sinister that none of the author’s sources—most of them Democrats still in office—would be quoted on the record.

Yet Ms. Jarrett’s well-reported clashes with such heavy hitters as Rahm Emmanuel and Robert Gibbs (neither still serving in the White House) are a backdrop to the book’s most controversial material: The raid on Osama Bin Laden.

Reading between his carefully crafted lines, one can discern why Mr. Miniter’s sources within the intelligence community provided him with a stark counter-point to the post-raid triumphalism of the Obama White House.

In response, the daggers of Langley were quietly unsheathed for the author. “Valerie Jarrett played a pivotal role . . . (exercising) Rasputin-like magic over Obama, provoking bitter fights with the CIA director and secretaries of state and defense. Jarrett . . . the president’s protector . . . repeatedly warned that Obama could be blamed if the operation went awry.”

While presidential protectors and bureaucratic rivalries are hardy perennials of American politics, Mr. Obama’s wobbliness contrasts poorly with the stoic constancy of Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, Robert Gates, and those anonymous professionals of our intelligence community—to say nothing of Seal Team Six.

The Hamlet-like detachment of Mr. Obama also underlies successive chapters on the fifteen-month fight over healthcare and its aftermath. That legislation might well have been labeled Pelosi-care because of the steely determination displayed by then Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. The Madame De Farge of American politics, Speaker Pelosi tolerated no White House infringement on her prerogatives and had little patience for the president’s “floating” between contradictory alternatives.

When the healthcare backlash resulted in a Republican House majority in 2011, the new House Speaker, John Boehner, faced similar presidential inconstancy as the nation struggled with downgrades in its credit-ratings and looming governmental shut-downs over debt ceilings.

Even the Democrats were unhappy with Mr. Obama, one senator telling the New York Times, “We are watching him turn into Jimmy Carter right before our eyes.”

The author’s conclusions are implied by book’s title as well as his scathing overall assessment of Mr. Obama’s leadership—stake-burning heresies for any practicing journalist.

But even as the book went to press, there was further stonewalling by the Justice Department over “Fast And Furious;” Congress even voted a contempt citation against Mr. Obama’s Attorney General. If all that were not enough, the White House security leaks that began in June 2012 have continued to hemorrhage, possibly calculated for political advantage.

So what do we do? Read this book. Make up your own mind—and see you on Election Day!