Scholarly literature spanning more than six decades on the subject of leadership describes the characteristics of effective leaders. One trait stands out as axiomatic: Effective leaders take responsibility for problems around them; they do not shift blame to others. As Winston Churchill put it, "The price of greatness is responsibility."
Indeed, taking responsibility is one of the key traits people expect from a leader. In one 2006 study, researchers at the University of Kent in England conducted an experiment in which subjects in a group were given money and a choice: They could either keep it all or contribute some portion to a "group fund" that would be doubled and divided equally between all participants.
In a second phase of the experiment, the participants were asked who would be the best leader for the group. Eighty percent of the time, they chose the person who had contributed the most to the fund. When people can choose a leader, they prefer those who take responsibility for group welfare.
This brings us to the shutdown of the federal government. The conventional narrative is that conservatives are holding the nation hostage and hamstringing the helpless president.
Americans will likely see through this. Most dislike the current Republican strategy, but they know ultimate culpability lies at the top. This sorry episode will reinforce the perception of the president as someone more comfortable denouncing subordinates than taking responsibility.
Obama's image as a strong leader has dropped like a stone since 2009. A month after his first inauguration, a CBS News/New York Times poll found 85 percent of Americans said he had "strong qualities of leadership."
By January 2010, just 66 percent in a Quinnipiac poll said the president had "strong leadership qualities." In the same poll last week, only 53 percent gave this response.
Some of this no doubt reflects the bitter partisanship of our times. But some of it is also logically due to a growing sense that the president is unwilling or unable to take responsibility in difficult circumstances and blames others instead. Half of Americans say he "spend(s) too much time blaming others," according to a Fox News.
Is this assessment fair? Sample his public pronouncements and judge for yourself. Just last week, he washed his hands of the government shutdown by asserting that Republicans alone are "shutting down the government over an ideological crusade."
Or consider the recent Syria debacle. Initially, the president declared a "red line" if President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons in the civil war. But when the Syrian leader was shown to have done so, Obama failed to act, and declared, "I didn't set a red line, the world set a red line. My credibility is not on the line." The president shouldn't have been surprised when 54 percent of Americans said they believed he was "ducking responsibility for his earlier statement."
There is plenty of time for the president to take responsibility and rectify his perceived leadership deficit. It is true that he does not have a rubber stamp; the House of Representatives is certainly opposed to many of his initiatives. But that makes leadership at the top all the more important. Great leaders negotiate and own the consequences.
The Republicans represent a mainstream position that many Americans support, not an extremist fringe that a leader should vilify. In the budget and debt-limit fights of the coming weeks, Obama can show a leader's courage to take ideas from the opposition and forge agreement with enough Republicans to produce a deal.
There is a lesson here for Republicans as well. Virtually every poll finds little confidence in the GOP and even lower favorability toward Republicans in Congress than for Democrats. Hardly a recipe for political resurgence.
So what is the likelihood Obama will step up at this crucial moment as a responsible chief executive? We probably got the answer from his senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer, who told CNN "We're not for … negotiating with people with a bomb strapped to their chest." Sadly, he was talking about his Republican colleagues.
Arthur C. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute. He wrote this for The Los Angeles Times.
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