From Japan to the Deficit, President Obama's Listless Leadership

I don't deny Obama his right to golf, pick NCAA winners and focus his weekend radio address on gender inequality, but his detachment seems misplaced in light of the triple tragedy in Japan.
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President Obama withstands the enormous pressures of the presidency well and stays cool under pressure -- this is to be appreciated. His "No-drama Obama" style is reassuring for the leader of the free world, especially given this president's lack of prior senior management experience.

But I am scratching my head about his seeming detachment from the huge crises we face in the first quarter of 2011. I don't deny him his right to golf, pick NCAA winners and focus his weekend radio address on gender inequality. But, jeepers, his detachment seems misplaced in light of the triple tragedy in Japan and the bipartisan efforts to avoid a government shutdown. The president appears to lack basic leadership moxie for both crises.

While President Obama has made humanitarian moves on Japan, on Wednesday the Obama administration undercut the Japanese government by urging a nuclear safe zone for Americans in Japan four times the distance declared by the Japanese government. Imagine the reaction of this crowded island nation whose inhabitants have nowhere to go. Japan has 127 million residents in its 146,000 square miles, while the United States has 308 million people in its 3.8 million square miles. That means Japan is more than 100 times as densely populated as the United States.

Imagine if in response to our 1979 Three-Mile Island, Pennsylvania, disaster we were urged by the world's most responsible superpower to evacuate the New York-to-Washington corridor while we were also trying to deal with power blackouts, an earthquake, a tsunami and some 10 million displaced people! If President Obama is correct, Japan faces an unspeakably bigger tragedy. If Obama is wrong, he has done a huge disservice to an ally in desperate need. I am not a scientist, but I am perplexed at the president's actions and the impact they must be having in Japan. Moreover, the American people have been panicked into buying up the world supply of potassium iodine pills, thanks to careless Obama administration comments and our sensationalist media. So the Japanese people who may really need these pills have no ability to obtain them. The Japanese people have been the model of cooperation, resilience and stoicism. By contrast, despite our immediate and large personal and corporate charitable outpouring and military assistance, the U.S. media and federal government have been, at best, reckless, and at worst, harmful.

Domestically, the United States faces a budget crisis. Our government may be shut down because of a lack of agreement on how much and what to cut in the budget. President Obama wisely saw it coming and created a bipartisan deficit commission, the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. The commission nobly produced strong recommendations supported by most of its members. But from the State of the Union address and beyond, President Obama has dropped the ball. Not only has he ignored the commission proposals, but also, as many Democrats in Congress complain, he has been absent in any meaningful ways from congressional budget talks.

A crisis is not just an opportunity: it is also a mandate for leaders. It is not the time for opinion polls or re-election posturing. These crises affect millions of people and how we define ourselves as Americans.

I suggest some presidential focus even if it means a delayed trip, recreation or campaigning. We are a great nation and we need and want a great focused, engaged president. Leaders lead. We need leadership we can believe in.

Gary Shapiro is the president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, which represents more than 2,000 technology companies and owns and produces the International CES. Shapiro is the author of The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream.

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