Near the end of 1990, President George Herbert Walker Bush was trying to sell a war. The antagonists were two countries that at first blush appeared to have little to do with the concerns of Americans. Iraq had invaded Kuwait, had taken over its oilfields, and was within striking distance of the vast pools of Saudi Arabian crude. And oil, of course, was what this war was all about. Bush would get the backing of the UN and, by a slim margin, approval from both the House and the Senate, but he also sought a mandate from the American people to intercede and push the army of Iraq back behind its borders.
So he put a four-star general named Norman Schwarzkopf in charge of the whole thing. Schwarzkopf had a distinguished service record going back to Vietnam, but he had something more important going for him: He was a big, solid, bear of a man, with a deep timbre to his voice and a twinkle in his eye, and a tendency to tear up in an endearing fashion when the occasion called for it. He was everyone’s favorite uncle, right down to his homespun name, Norman.
And so, while Bush worked Congress and overseas allies, Schwarzkopf was everywhere. He gave interviews to everyone. After the shooting stopped he sat down for an hour with Barbara Walters, our official inquisitor of the suddenly famous. What red-white-and-blue American wouldn’t trust his son or daughter to Stormin’ Norman? And, sure enough, as Americans cheered, Operation Desert Storm swept through the Iraqi forces like a scythe, vindicating Bush and his decision not only to invade, but also to put Schwarzkopf in charge.
I am reminded of Schwarzkopf (who died in 2013) as the Obama administration takes its licks over the bungled rollout of the Affordable Care Act. More precisely, I’m reminded of the absence of a Schwarzkopf figure every time I see our once-eloquent President sputter defensively and fumble his way through the various excuses and apologies he offers for the failed launch.
The new law, which seeks to add some 30 million Americans to the ranks of the insured and guarantee coverage for those with an existing medical condition, is an enormous undertaking, but one that will ultimately benefit us all. Given the concessions necessary to get it passed, it was bound to be imperfect, and a loyal opposition—if there were one—might work with Democrats to repair the flaws. The very scale of the law required someone outside the usual Washington, D.C., orbit to manage it and, just as important, to sell it.
When it came to getting the country ready for war, Bush had Schwarzkopf. When it came to getting the country ready for the most sweeping legislation since Medicare, Obama had … Obama. The president and his advisers should have known that he was not the man to sell the Affordable Care Act to a public whose skepticism was fed daily by Republican diatribes.
Obama’s team is relentlessly smug in its belief that it knows how to get its message to young people through social media. And getting young people to enroll is fundamental to the law’s success. But managing the Affordable Care Act is not about Tweets or “like this” options on Facebook. It requires an individual with broad appeal, a proven track record in business for getting tough jobs done, and the ability to step out in front of the camera and the microphones and reassure Americans about this landmark piece of legislation. It requires a Stormin’ Norman. Instead, we have gaffes, apologies and about-faces from Obama, who is not a software engineer and doesn’t seem to know many of the details of the law. He is the president—a job that requires he pay attention to a lot of things, while finding single-task overachievers for the heavy lifting.
This failure of leadership has created a vacuum that has allowed the law’s GOP critics to shape the narrative: The website crashes are proof that government is not capable of big, bold ventures; the inclination of healthy young people to pay a penalty rather than sign up for coverage will implode the law’s actuarial structure; insurance companies are charging higher premiums for mandated coverage that people don’t need or want. Right now, Obama has no one with the credibility to rebut those accusations—least of all himself.
In the years since Desert Storm, historians have reappraised Schwarzkopf’s leadership and tactics, and not always to his credit. But it really doesn’t matter. When summoned, he answered the call and his message to the nation was one of decisiveness, not excuses. A decade earlier, another leader—this time from corporate America—very publicly asked us to trust him as he struggled to save his company. That was Lee Iacocca, and the company was Chrysler. As with Schwarzkopf, you couldn’t turn on your TV without seeing Iacocca promising to use government-guaranteed loans to make automobiles America could be proud of. Iacocca came across as someone we could trust to get the job done right.
Long after the Chrysler bailout, Iacocca wrote a book called “Where Have All the Leaders Gone?” The president at the time was Bush the younger, and Iacocca skewered everyone from our political leaders to what he called “corporate gangsters.” Long forgotten was that the cars Iacocca built to “save” Chrysler were uniformly dismal—the unlamented K-Cars—and it was the advent of the minivan that ultimately righted the Chrysler ship. But Iacocca’s urgent question requires an answer: I’m convinced there are leaders out there. Our administration has let us down by failing to find them. As a result, the task Barack Obama has left himself is to convince us that the Affordable Care Act is a winner, not a K-Car.
Steve Robinson moved to Flagler County after a 30-year career in New York and Atlanta in print, TV and the Web. Reach him by email here.
Johnny Taxpayer says
The author’s points are well taken, but sadly are about 6 years too late. The problem with the Obama administration has always been leadership. I have no doubt the President is an extremely smart man, but what he can’t do, and has never been able to do, is lead, because he’s never had to. Prior to becoming President, Barack Obama’s resume wouldn’t qualify him to run a 7-11 gas station. I remember specifically when comparing himself to Gov Palin’s experience as Governor of Alaska he made the statement that he runs a campaign that spends more money and employs more people than the State of Alaska. While that may have been factually accurate (I’m still not sure it was) Barack Obama was essentially saying the only leadership experience he had to show for himself was his campaign for President. He essentially said we should judge his leadership skills on his ability to apply for a job, not on any prior accomplishments, not on any experiences where he’s selected, trained, inspired, and lead a team to accomplish something, but on his ability to apply for a job. Fast forward to today and you see how his campaign leadership experience falls short. I’ll give him credit, he can campaign like nobody before him, and likely nobody after him, but he has proven he is not capable of switching from campaigning to Governing, because that requires actual leadership, and he has no experience in real leadership. That probably makes for a good Senator, but it certainly doesn’t make for a good President.
…”he made the statement that he runs a campaign that spends more money and employs more people than the State of Alaska.”
I don’t know if it’s factually accurate but what I do know is that it should have been a red flag alert. It is an atrocity for a presidential campaign to spend more and employ more people than an actually functioning state tasked with governing and running the state efficiently and effectively.
Were all these people he employed shifted from being paid with campaign finance dollars to taxpayer dollars with perks, too?
Well, at least PolitiFacts finally called out ONE OF his ACA lies as THE 2013 LIE OF THE YEAR. And that is the “if you like your healthcare plan you can keep it” lie. According to PolitiFact, all his spinning and tap dancing around this one was not enough to cover up or pull off this grand lie.
Johnny Taxpayer says
You raise a good point, and yet another one that was vastly overlooked by the media, the fact that Obama holds the record for the 2 most expensive campaigns in history (08 +12), he spent a billion dollars each campaign and all we heard from the media was about all the so-called Republican Super-PACs.
Wow, Steve…..great article.
The idiots elected a community organizer with no experience to the highest office in the land. What the hell did they expect would happen?
This man is not even in the same class with any of the men you mentioned in your article and he never will be, White House or no White House. These were men with ACCOMPLISHMENTS.
It’s not only his smugness it’s his lies and anti America. Every time he opens his lies come out.
At his worst, Obama is better that Mitt Romney at his best.
At least the president isn’t working to privatize (destroy) Medicare.
We won’t be using vouchers for the healthcare WE PAID FOR through wage deductions.
Obama does show compassion for displaced and unemployed Americans.
Obama doesn’t show contempt for the working class and poor.
Romney is the “white devil” and I’m glad we dodged him and Eddie Munster.
Those two a** puppets personify arrogance.
BO has plenty of warts and plenty of detractors like Mr. Robinson.
Still, we’re all better off with Obama.
I say this knowing that the president is against uncensored Internet, and rabidly anti-gun.
Two very sore points with me….
But Mittens is a major force in shipping well-paid American jobs to China.
That disqualifies him from being president.
That is his mortal sin.
Screw Mitt Romney and the horse he rode in on.
Elitist piece of garbage that he is.
Charles Gardner says
Obama doesn’t show contempt for the working class?
Please enlighten me Mr appraiser.
Florida Native. says
Mitt Romney is looking very good about now I would say.
Diana L. says
Oh, the Anti-American comments are out. Does our country need more Democrats or more Republican? What I suggest that we need are more grown ups.
The comments you reference aren’t anti-American.
In fact they are uniquely American because of our right to free speech.
What our country needs is honest leadership devoid of personal agendas,
regardless of political affiliation.
Is that grown-up enough?
Diana L says
Ha, Mitt Romney would NEVER look good to me.
Romney is busy building another mansion, and checking on his offshore tax protected fortune. Now you working folks go write that IRS check like a good drone.
Obama has lofty well placed ideals but he just cannot implement them successfully.
Charles Gardner says
I wonder if Nancy has read it yet.
I love the way people rationalize when they are being screwed…Bush did it, Romney sucks.
None of that does a thing to change the disaster we are living with now, the one being caused by THIS man.
Sherry Epley says
WOW! I can’t believe that no one is talking about Rick Scott who has done everything in his power to sabotage the implementation of the ACA in Florida. Scott refused the billions in funds to expand Medicaid to those who really need the help. Scott also took away the power the of the Florida state insurance commissioner to negotiate premium rates with the health insurance carriers. ALL in the name of political opposition at all costs. . . and to hell with our citizens!
President Obama’s flaw is that he continues to think all citizens of the USA are intelligent and caring. . . and have a social consciousness, just because he does. Unfortunately he has over estimated many, many in our country who could care less about anyone but themselves.
I worry for a future that appears to contain too many who live in fear and anger towards anyone who is not exactly like themselves. . . with too many guns far too available..
@ Sherry: You should know that Florida has the 3rd or 4th highest participation in the ACA.
“Fear and anger towards anyone who is not exactly like themselves?” Are you calling anyone who thinks this President is doing a lousy job a racist, Sherry?
I think we all know a fraud when we see one.
Christopher V says
The story is about your president, Obama, and his amateur, failing, etc, leadership style. Every time there is a negative conversation about Obama, all you liberals can do is point to Rep’s…very childish. Don’t forget to blame GW Bush, after all, that is your favorite talking point.
Diana L says
@ Genie if you are speaking about President 0bama when you say “THIS man”, that says more about you than it does “THAT man”.
Um, maybe no one is talking about Rick Scott because the article is about Obama. The old blame George Bush/Rick Scott/Republicans/conservatives/the KKK/old white men and apparently, Mitt Romney, who I don’t think was elected, just isn’t going to cut it anymore. After five years of incompetence people may just be, as evidenced by Steve’s article, realizing that electing Obama, who never ran a lemonade stand as the chief executive of the most powerful country, and largest and most complex economy during one of it’s most distressed moments was akin to pulling someone off the street to yank out a pesky brain tumor. Now I’m no genius, but I did clamor from the very beginning he was unqualified only to be subject to the usual baseless accusation that I just didn’t like black guys running for president. Well, whatever we get, it’s your own damned fault if you voted for this guy just because it made you feel good to elect the first black president. Wise up for next time.
Diana L says
I didn’t vote for Senator/President Obama for the color of his skin, I don’t vote for people because of their skin color, gender, etc. I am not even close to regretting for voting for him twice.
Christopher V says
Then why did you vote for Obama? What has he done to better your life?
She can’t answer that because there is nothing, literally, that is in alignment with what is best for the working class, our country, and the nuclear family. Obamacare is and will remain nothing but another way for our Federal government to rob the middle class of its wealth (not that they have “wealth” to begin with) and enslave every child born in the US into permanent financial bondage or is this untrue?
Diana L says
I did answer that. I just see things a lot differently than you do.
Diana L says
I don’t vote for a President based on what they can do for me personally, it’s more about what that President can do for the country. So for a big example, the PPACA is a Big deal and will do many positive things for this country as a whole on so many levels. On another note, the choice between Gov. Romney and Pres. Obama, in my mind, there was nothing to ponder on that one.
Christopher V says
[Comment disallowed. Christopher V, as we’ve told you before, if you wish to have your comments see the light of day you’re going to have to make an effort to be less less rude and personal toward fellow-commenters. It’s not necessarily a problem that you have nothing intelligent to say. But at least say it respectfully. Thanks.–FL]