Economic leadership vs. popular leadership
What can and should Barack Obama learn from Binyamin Netanyahu?
US President Obama, PM Netanyahu at White House Photo: REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
It was Barack Obama’s clear social-demographic advantage – the support of a
“minority” (Hispanics, African Americans and women) turned a “majority” – that
brought on his reelection.
Binyamin Netanyahu, too, is likely to earn
reelection by virtue of the social demographics of the “rightist bloc” that
Obama will be remembered in his first term as a “popular”
leader – a politician who championed compromise, espoused cooperation, and
sought the kind of commonality that usually rests on the lowest shared basis.
Obama made no meaningful breakthrough in his first term in office; he played the
role of conciliator and mediator. Even in these functions, he posted no
glittering success abroad or in “domestic” issues vis-à-vis the Republican
majority in Congress.
Popular leadership and economic leadership
inherently conflict. The former rests on short-term calculus and immediate
gratification of the public’s wishes; the latter hinges on long-term vision and
the choice of lengthy demarches at the expense of popularity and fast-and-easy
A true and stable economic agenda is based on
long-term thinking and processes that take time to pay off. The electorate
cannot always see or understand the long-term utility of a given economic
policy. The problem in an economic debate is that it hits everyone’s pocket,
meaning that every citizen has an opinion about it, but it comprises a set of
complex parameters and entails economic knowledge that rank-and-file citizens
As a case in point, consider the issue of reforming and
competitivizing Israel’s ports. Such a reform requires the restructuring of port
workers’ remuneration so that they will generate more output by working longer
hours more efficiently. In the short run, it’s an unpopular cause to tackle
because it involves layoffs, wage cuts and heightening of
Farther out, however, streamlining the ports will lower
unloading costs, reduce import prices and cut export costs to make Israeli goods
more competitive in international markets. This is a long-term process that
entails a short-term “price”; as such, it will not earn its engineer any
popularity despite its necessity.
There you have it: the electorate is
unlikely to award “extra credit” for a complex economic agenda.
what image should a head of state seek – the Homo Economicus or the popular?
LEADER who knows that his/her term in office is in the public’s hands must weigh
the merits of a popular strategy – showering voters with pleasing promises –
against those of a responsible one. The dilemma takes an especially trenchant
turn at election time. To curry favor, candidates for leadership have to appeal
to the lowest common denominator. Conversely, leaders who wish to offer an
economic vision and spearhead genuine, meaningful economic reforms may have to
wipe the “nice guy” smile off their faces.
It takes a broad range of
skills and capabilities to be head of state. Generally, such a person focuses on
three main areas of activity that may not necessarily be related:
1. Vision and
national leadership – leading the public at large, offering the public and the
state a vision, mobilizing the citizenry behind confidence in their leadership,
and playing the role of “national patriarch.”
2. Political leadership –
guiding a party through the political maze, taking political initiatives, and
“cooking deals” in the corridors with politicians at various levels.
National CEO – managing and carrying out the state’s affairs and keeping all
those campaign promises.
Few are the leaders who can display strong
prowess in all these arenas concurrently.
DURING HIS first term, Barack
Obama proved his strength as a visionary. However, he displayed weakness as a
political leader by failing to pass through Congress the gamut of programs he
had promised his voters. He also showed weakness as a national CEO whose task it
is to implement his programs.
Obama’s political history thus far has no
chapter in which he surmounts the obstacles by really “getting something done”
and managing an organization at the macro level.
Like Obama, Netanyahu is
known as a public leader and a visionary. Moreover, Netanyahu is gifted with
political leadership strengths that allow him to attain his political objectives
time after time.
As finance minister, unlike Obama, Netanyahu proved
himself to be a “doer” and economic leader who made tough decisions and carried
out economic moves even if they entailed cutting living flesh to the
Before being elected to his first term, Barack Obama persuaded the
public that “Yes we can” – that he had a vision.
Once in office, however,
he failed to elevate his vision to the practical plane.
The necessity now
is to focus on defining and implementing the contents of the vision: “What is it
that we ‘can’?” Obama needs to realize that if meaningful economic reforms are
to go ahead, his neutral, popular positions have to go. The two might coexist at
a time of economic strength and efflorescence.
However, given the state
of the global and, particularly, the American economy, Obama should stop being
the nice guy. He should take an example from Netanyahu and become an economic
In his most recent term as prime minister, Netanyahu reinforced
his stature as a popular leader. In the next term, however – which is also
shaping up as Netanyahu’s – the balance for the Israeli economy needs to tilt
toward “economic leadership.” To bring this about, Mr. Netanyahu should recruit
executives graced with leadership, professionals who will forego “popularity”
and be men and women of vision and action – people who, acting on his and
Israel’s behalf, will take unpleasant but essential measures for the Israeli
Dr. Hana-Muriel Setteboun is vice president of Business
Development and Finance at FK group, Israel.