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The Default of Leadership

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Even though I grew up in Brooklyn, I am a Yankee fan. During a kid's formative baseball years from ages 4-9, the Yankees were New York's only team. I got hooked on the Yanks and have been loyal ever since. In 2008, I got hooked on Barack Obama, and I root for him like he's the Yankees. Unfortunately, I'm starting to think that he's not the champion I'd hoped for. I know he was dealt a rough hand - a bunch of difficult wars and an economic melt down. But the wars remain and the economy still stinks. All of President Obama's brainpower, charisma and speaking skill have not translated into clear, crisp, leadership. Instead, I see just another calculating, poll-driven politico. His re-election campaign dominates his Presidency.

Jon Stewart got it right last week in his series on "Armadebtdon 2011: The End of the World As we Owe It." In Mr. Stewart's critique of Obama's nationally televised address on the debt ceiling, he gave the President one of his patented looks of pure incredulity when Obama suggested that everyone call their representatives to urge compromise. In disbelief Stewart asked: "Is that your idea? Call your Congressman?...Did the President just quit?"

Jon Stewart may be on to something. While I believe that President Obama has always been more of a centrist than many of his supporters and opponents believe, I also thought he was capable of clear, direct thought and action. Moderation is not another word for indecision. It does not imply an absence of values and ideals. The debt ceiling is a case in point. The President and the American people know that defaulting on the nation's debt is wrong. While the last minute deal reached by Congress and the White House a day before the deadline averted catastrophe, the debt ceiling issue should never have been allowed to see the light of day.

The President should simply have said that while he hoped that Congress would raise the debt ceiling as it always had, that if it didn't he would interpret his executive authority to allow him to raise it unilaterally. Congress passed the budgets that resulted in the deficit--both the spending and the tax laws--as chief executive it is his job to administer the laws they enacted. If two laws contradict each other (the budget and the debt ceiling), it is arguably an executive decision to balance the two. Forget the 14th Amendment - the President's inherent executive authority gives him this power. In response, Congress could impeach the President and the Courts could declare his action unconstitutional. But all of that is better than begging the Tea Party to allow the government to function. It is possible that strong, aggressive leadership might have avoided the shameful spectacle we have witnessed over the past several weeks.

The economy and our community and political life are built on confidence and security. The economic vibrancy of my home city of New York is built on the reduction in crime that has been a priority of every New York City Mayor since Ed Koch. Civil disorder peaked in New York City in 1977 and has gradually been replaced by security and confidence and civic well being. President Obama does not look or sound confident. He does not project confidence. FDR, Truman, Ike, JFK, Reagan and Clinton projected confidence, and with that - leadership. The President needs to throw out the polls, dump his smug set of advisors, stop trying to get the Tea Party to behave correctly and lead a little more from his gut. While he has no strong opponent in 2012 at this rate he could lose to "none of the above."

The goal of a sustainable but growing economy requires consumer and investor confidence in the stability and security of America's political and economic order. A President that allows the issue of default to even reach the political agenda has already failed. Defaulting on our debt is worse than allowing a government shut down - and a shutdown itself impairs stability and confidence. The line between civilization and chaos can be surprisingly thin. It is based on a sense that what we have worked for cannot be taken away arbitrarily. That confidence gets us to save and invest and build for the future.

The debt crisis has eroded confidence, and while its cause was the Tea Party's rigid ideology, I hold the President accountable for allowing it to become an issue. However, just as the Yankees don't always win the World Series, there is always the next season and the next series. Just like Derek Jeter's 3,000th hit was a home run, talented people can always figure out a way to do great things. President Obama is a man of enormous talent. It's time for him to show he can rise, Jeter-like, to the occasion. The President needs to look for opportunities to use the unique and powerful office he occupies to project American leadership, clarity and direction. He'll also have to figure out how to move the economy forward in the face of massive federal funding cuts. While the possibility of financial default was scary, the President's default of leadership is far worse.