Leadership skills of President William J Clinton
Though the United States is said to be a nation governed by its laws and institutions and not by individuals, the man who occupies the highest office of this country can have a tremendous influence in the way the Government is run. This phenomenon is in contrast to many other nations, like UK, where apart from occasional personalities like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, mostly their leaders have little influence on government actions, which is controlled by the traditional collective leadership. Thus, the actions and leadership styles of the presidents of the United Sates have profound repercussions on the nation as a whole. This essay is an attempt to discuss the leadership skills of President William J Clinton, and explore how his skills affected the policies and governance of the country.
The hallmark of Clinton’s personality has been his capacity for self-correction. Good leaders always self-monitor and self-correct the miscues, in their administrative style. Clinton’s initial years in the office were anything but smooth. He was unsuccessful in fulfilling his campaign promise of reversing ban on the homosexuals, and his administration had inept relations with press. Congress also refused to enact an economic stimulus bill, which was crucial for his legislative program. There was also an alleged story that many flights were delayed at Los Angeles Airport, because the President was having his hair done by his stylist aboard Air Force one. Such incidents forced his approval ratings down by 20 percent, at the end of the first 100 days of his presidency.
However, he learnt from his initial mistakes and took measures to correct them. He reshuffled his White house staff, by removing many people who were from his home county Arkansas, and in their place appointed people who had experience in handling Federal affairs. He also appointed widely approved persons for the post of Attorney General and the judge of the Supreme Court, and he was successful in lifting the ban on abortions in overseas military hospitals. Though his approval ratings plummeted after the first hundred days of his presidency, he managed to gain back his momentum and popularity during the transition, mainly owing to his commendable show in the economic summit organized in Little Rock.
The other notable quality in Clinton, as a leader, is his ability to connect with the masses. Scardino refers to him as the poor man's J F Kennedy. Like Kennedy, Clinton established himself as a star, and had the capacity to captivate the crowd. They both had the uncanny knack of forging a friendship just with a nod. Clinton used his Charisma and popularity, to outmaneuver the better financed campaign of his opposing candidate. Clinton, with his youth, energy and modern campaign techniques, easily had the advantage over Bush Sr. in the election campaign.
Clinton’s skills, however, failed in forming a good relationship with the press. While, during his campaign days, he faxed his responses to every Republican attack aimed at him to the reporters, he let his team build his persona rather than the press. This practice continued during his tenure in the White house, whereby he kept the press at a distance. He used the press through deliberate leaks and spins, but never had a close informal relationship with reporters, like Kennedy had.
His personal magnetism was immensely helpful in his foreign policies. He was very successful in bringing warring factions to the negotiating tables, as evident in his handling of Middle East and Northern Ireland. Clinton managed to bring Israeli and the Palestine leadership back to negotiations in the Camp David summit, at the end of his presidency. However, he struggled to strike a balance between humanitarian concerns and America’s strategic interests, which is reflected in his non-interference, in the Rwanda conflict which left 800,000 people dead and 200,000 homeless.
However, he was more proactive in handling the Bosnian crisis. After initial inaction, Clinton sent US peacekeepers to Bosnia, as more than 100,000 people perished in the conflict, and NATO launched a two month old war in 1999, which resulted in US troop deployment, in Kosovo. Clinton used human rights to back many interventions, most of them involving military action, into the internal matters of other nations.
A president’s skills are scrutinized at every step during his presidency, but it is measured mostly based on the results he produced at the end of his term in the office. Clinton’s biggest legacy is his economic achievements. He has presided over the country, during its largest economic boom. Though he promised tax cuts and other conservative measures during his campaign, his actions were more towards balancing the budget and bringing down the enormous public debt. He also was good at appointing right people for right jobs, like roping in Robert Rubin, Alan Greenspan, and Arthur Levitt, to oversee the economic revival.
The economic resurgence witnessed under Clinton’s period at the helm, was the longest uninterrupted period of economic prosperity in the history of the United States. The unemployment levels were as low as the 1960s, and inflation remained under check. Clinton was also assisted by the market conditions, such as the increase in the production of oil and weak global competition. As a result of the revenue extracted through the economic boom, Clinton actually managed to submit a surplus budget during his second term.
Clinton also has a way of learning while doing things. In 1978, he was elected as the youngest Governor of Arkansas, but due to a series of unpopular steps from him, he soon became, as he once jokingly said, the youngest ex-governor of the state. In the two years, during which he was the governor, he managed to disillusion his supporters, and once removed from office, he spent the next two years, traversing the state seeking a chance to remedy his ways. He was voted back to power and he managed to serve for 10 full years as the Governor.
This pattern is seen repeated in his presidential years too. Though he was not voted out of the office, he suffered a period of huge unpopularity after his initial 100 days in the office. He antagonized the Washington political circle, through some excesses such as problematic staff appointments and other such distractions. He then awakened by the popularity polls and the repetition of trend, corrected his actions. He was more willing to negotiate, and he even appointed David Gergen, a former Republican White House aide.
One of the great strengths of Clinton is his speaking abilities. Most political observers, rate him as one of the best speakers of American politics, and his techniques of speech enable him to have a connection with his audience. His frequent pauses are well placed to increase the dramatic effort and to garner the required attention, his body gestures sync with his words, and his personality and charisma make the words appear stronger than they are.
“But I believe that to be forgiven, more than sorrow is required - at least two more things. First, genuine repentance - a determination to change and to repair breaches of my own making. I have repented. Second, what my bible calls a ''broken spirit''; an understanding that I must have God's help to be the person that I want to be;”
The above words were uttered by him in the year 1998, at the annual White House prayer breakfast. The audience was more than 100 members, which included many religious leaders, and was made amidst a great personal turmoil. The report by Ken Starr had been submitted to the congress, and Clinton faced the possibility of impeachment. The New York Times commented that, the speech was so emotional that it brought the assembled clergymen on to their feet.
Charles Jones, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, rated this speech as one of the best speeches made by an American president and he lauded the way in which Clinton has offered a personal solution to what had become a public problem. When he said,
“If my repentance is genuine and sustained and if I can maintain both a broken spirit and a strong heart, then good can come of this for our country, as well as for me and my family”,
the assembled members treated him with a standing ovation for 15 minutes. This speech is a perfect example, for his oratory skills as well as ability to convey his thoughts and emotions to his audience.
Thus, Clinton has many qualities a successful leader should possess, like self-correction, charisma, youth, vigor, and communication skills, and his country did benefit from these qualities, which is reflected in the way he left the economy and foreign affairs in a good shape for his successor Bush.
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