President Barack Obama was defiant at his news conference after the recent midterm elections. Rather than admitting to a “shellacking,” as he did following the Democrats poor showing in November 2010 (“A pensive and introspective President Obama said Wednesday the election was a ‘shellacking’ and took responsibility for his party’s disastrous showing,” the press reported at the time), this time the President expressed no remorse. He laid out his plans for the next two years, even threatening to issue an executive order on immigration if the Congress did not pass a bill to his liking. Although the Democrats lost control of the Senate and the Republicans gained seats in the House of Representatives and several governorships, Obama was far from contrite.
President Francois Hollande of France was also defiant at a recent news conference marking the midterm point in his presidential mandate. Refusing to accept errors on his part in both his political and personal lives, the lowest ranking French President in popularity polls in recent history was upbeat if not downright aggressive in responding to journalists’ questions. The only hint at self-criticism was when he said he probably would not run again for office in 2017 if the unemployment figures were not considerably reduced. Merci, Francois!
How should we, ordinary citizens, react to these projections of self-confidence? On the one hand, we certainly do not want to see our leaders grovelling with introspection. Leaders are supposed to lead; we expect them to be decisive, sure of what they are doing and the directions they are taking us. That is why they were elected. Self-confidence is part of what we expect from them. We want true leaders.
On the other hand, we expect our leaders to be in contact with reality; we expect them to be able to react to changes and to be able to alter the rudder of the ship of state. After President Obama said that he had heard the American people, he went on to say that what he had heard was that the citizens wanted the officials in Washington to move forward. Nowhere did he leave the impression that the voters had voted against him. Obama and Hollande showed no indications that they realized that the voters were not pleased with them as individual leaders, that we expect them to change.
Can they change or are they stuck in a bubble? Obama and Hollande continue to believe that they are on the right path. Both believe that over time their policies will begin showing results. After all, the unemployment rate in the United States has gone down, the debt has been reduced, more people have health insurance, the stock market is over 17,000 and the economy is growing. While Hollande’s France has not shown the same positive economic results, the French President seems determined to continue his policies; there is no radical change on the horizon.
Aside from the policy issues, both leaders have become unpopular. Obama’s approval ratings are hovering about 40%, Hollande’s around 20%. Again, one can argue that Obama’s rating is not unusual for the end of a second term; one could say that Hollande is the victim of a general slowing of European economies. All that is correct.
But, is it possible for an elected leader to change his/her behaviour in recognition of failures? Hollande showed no remorse about his personal gaffs. Obama made no serious effort to show he would be more accommodating towards the Republicans. His threat to issue an executive order on immigration was a clear act of political aggression. And the Republicans immediately responded in kind. Hollande did not see that his famous motorbike escapade had reduced his presidential prestige; Obama did not see that his coldness towards the opposition was a major factor in Washington gridlock.
It is often said we all have strengths and weaknesses. What is not often said is that our strengths can also be our greatest weaknesses. One has to be enormously self-confident to be elected president. That self-confidence, however, can be destructive when it obscures reality. The problem now for both presidents is not within the Beltway or French news reporting. The problem for both presidents is that they have been captured by their egos. That bubble appears to be the most difficult to pierce. The captains of the ships of state are not asleep at the helm; they are merely locked into autopilot and incapable of changing direction.