by Ken Feltman
One can only stand watching from the sidelines for so long without finally having to say, “Um, excuse me, but you people are nuts.”
– Kathleen Parker
Kathleen Parker has figured it out: President Obama is failing to convince people that he has the capacity to lead in difficult times because he may have a more feminine style of decision-making. We are not used to that in a president. President Clinton was sometimes called America’s first black president. Is our first black president our first woman president?
Parker, a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Washington Post, calls herself a conservative. Regular readers find her practical – sometimes relentlessly so – and willing to tackle difficult concepts. She did that with her 2008 book, Save the Males: Why Men Matter, Why Women Should Care. Now, she concentrates our attention on gender differences in leadership and the public’s expectation that the traditional masculine style is the proper one. Here’s what she wrote recently:
“Generally speaking, men and women communicate differently. Women tend to be coalition builders rather than mavericks (with the occasional rogue exception). While men seek ways to measure themselves against others, for reasons requiring no elaboration, women form circles and talk it out.”
Radnor has been picking up these signals since the 2008 campaign. A young woman from Stanford University wrote a report for Radnor on findings from several focus groups. She concluded with a personal note: “I see why women like (Obama). He thinks like us. He gives the promise of inclusiveness. Putting aside Venus and Mars, there is real comfort in finding a man who reasons from a feminine standpoint. Forgive me, but men can be totally clueless and assume that their way is the way. So boring and so yesterday! Women will perceive this in Obama, not (Hillary) Clinton.”
Crises make liabilities of traits that are otherwise admired. The Gulf oil spill focused attention on the Obama style. Here is what Parker wrote:
“No one expected him to don his wetsuit and dive into the gulf, but he did have the authority to intervene immediately and he didn’t. Instead, he deferred to BP, weighing, considering, even delivering jokes to the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner when he should have been on Air Force One to the Louisiana coast.”
Here are two comments from a New Orleans focus group in mid-June:
+ “Where was the guy? He’s sitting in the White House, sipping tea with some foreign dictator and giving our money to Wall Street, when he should be here giving orders and getting things done” [Expletives deleted].
+ “Sometimes we need a sense of urgency. He waits too much.”
Which comment was from a man and which was from a woman? You guessed it! Both comments express the same frustration, although in different ways.
+ “He seems to want to have broad participation in what to do. That will get a better solution but it takes time.”
+ “The leak requires a commander.”
Now, which is a man and which is a woman speaking? Men tend to assume the urgency and the necessity of taking charge. Women are willing to be consultative, to attempt to achieve consensus, but consensus is not the end in itself. Consensus leads to action. The impatience for everyone is that we may not get to consensus soon enough to prevent more damage.
Here is Parker again:
“His lack of immediate, commanding action was perceived as a lack of leadership because, well, it was. When he finally addressed the nation on day 56 (!) of the crisis, Obama’s speech featured 13 percent passive-voice constructions, the highest level measured in any major presidential address this century, according to the Global Language Monitor, which tracks and analyzes language.” Parker points out that the century is still young but the point is made.
Is this really about how women make crisis decisions?
The United States may not be able to adjust to a president who is so contemplative, so measured, so careful. Perhaps we like a little “cowboy” when the situation calls for it. Surely, our allies – and our enemies – must be wondering how Obama will deal with future crises. Will he become more the male or stay with the female way? The answer may be in Obama’s tendency to be stubborn when people try to push him to action. Or the answer may be in his resentment at inheriting so many problems that his own agenda has suffered.
Senior military officers will tell you that most women adapt quickly to command decision-making. Some men never do. The sexes are not hard-wired when it comes to taking action. So perhaps Obama’s reticence is an individual characteristic. Perhaps gender has nothing to do with it. We all know decisive women. We all know men who cannot commit.
Whatever historians decide, Parker likely is correct when she sums up this president and these times:
“Obama may prove to be our first male president who pays a political price for acting too much like a woman.”