The Leadership Deficit: More Politicians Failing To Oppose Bad Policy Because It’s Popular


You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief from within the halls of power on Monday when a Washington Post / Pew Research Center poll showing a majority of the public was comfortable with the NSA’s sweeping communications monitoring programs was released. All at once, the weighty responsibility on the shoulders of the American political establishment to lead on the issue was lifted. The same feeling of relief washed over the Washington elite when polls showed that Americans were leery of intervening in the ongoing blood orgy in Syria. Politicians could rest easy knowing Americans were fine with the wanton slaughter, the precedent-setting use of chemical weapons, and the erosion of the global order as foreign powers fill the vacuum left by a complacent superpower. It is a stunning abdication of the responsibility to lead that these polls remain unanswered. Few in Washington seem to feel the gravity of posterity’s judgment upon them. Without a course correction, history will not look upon this period of collective acquiescence and resignation kindly.

The Post/Pew poll is a godsend to the embattled White House and the many members of Congress who approved of the NSA’s programs. 56 percent of adults said they were comfortable with the “NSA getting secret court orders to track calls of millions of Americans to investigate terrorism.” Only 41 percent said that this was “not acceptable.”

With this, the counter argument to a disconcerting level of federal intrusion into Americans’ private lives was established.

“Democrats may feel that if the Obama administration has decided to continue a Bush-era program, that must mean it’s really necessary,” explained New York Times blogger Juliet Lapidos. “That’s not hypocrisy, exactly, more like a matter of trust/mistrust in leadership.”

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul was asked on Tuesday by CBS News’ morning hosts to justify his opposition to these programs when he is doing so in defiance of the public will.

“I would say just because Congress approved it doesn’t make it right,” Paul replied with masterful simplicity. “Congress has about a 10 percent approval rating, so I think we’re doing things that the public doesn’t approve of.”

The same sigh of relief was sounded when polls emerged showing most Americans opposed intervening in Syria to save innocent lives and prevent that conflict from spilling over its borders resulting in region-wide chaos.

A May Fox News poll showed a staggering 68 percent of respondents opposed intervention,. These findings supported the results of an April CBS News/New York Times which showed 62 percent opposed intervention.

These numbers are not the result of predestination that politicians must accept as natural and right. Public perception is shaped by leadership. On these issues, there has been little from American political officials.

Opinion leaders of greatly diverging political beliefs agree that the U.S. has abandoned its role and is setting many dangerous precedents by ignoring its responsibilities in this strategically key region. Charles Krauthammer, a conservative realist, sees the United States acceding to a shift in the global order as the European powers and Russia square off in a proxy fight in Syria. Liberal internationalist Richard Cohen scoffed at his “cold-hearted” ideological brethren who have abandoned the Syrians to favor their parochial passions.

Syria was never going to be the Iraq war. It was going to be a humanitarian intervention, an attempt to stop the killing, end the misery — use U.S. power to do good. This was not colonialism or neocolonialism or imposing a repellent Western regime on the always virtuous East. All we wanted — all I wanted — was to end the killing. Only the United States had the wherewithal to do this.

In a discussion of his column on MSNBC in the days after it was published, he, too, was made to respond to the fact that polls did not favor his particular desired policy outcome in Syria. Cohen tore into the president saying that it is President Barack Obama’s responsibility to lead and make a compelling case to the American people that they have to take a just course. And the just course may not always be a popular course, but framing hard choices to the public is in the president’s job description.

Of course, the White House is keen to engage the public when they do not like the poll results for, say, the president’s health care reform law. That deeply unpopular proposal — which gets more unpopular every day — has led the president and his allies to hold countless rallies and national addresses with the aim of shifting public opinion. The most recent of these events occurred last Friday. But while health care is a political priority for Obama, Syrian lives, American global dominance, and the nearly universal violation of American privacy rights are not.

Not just Obama but so many in Washington have become prisoners to the polls. Paralyzed by fear that their appalling approval rating will become even more abysmal, a snake bit Congress is virtually incapacitated. The president, also besieged, believes he is in no position to further imperil his second term agenda by pursuing national objectives which deviate significantly from his personal legislative aims. This is a recipe for disaster. And those disasters are unfolding both abroad and domestically.

It is time for America’s political leaders to lead. The polls merely measure public opinion but they do not justify it. It is time for America’s elected representatives, not its columnists, to provide the public with a counter narrative.

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An experienced broadcaster and columnist, Noah Rothman has been providing political opinion and analysis to a variety of media outlets since 2010. His work has appeared in a number of political opinion journals, and he has shared his insights with television and radio personalities across the country.