Why Presidential Leadership Is So Important—And Why Its Absence Is So Dangerous


Wesley Smith

March 28

7 min read

Public Policy



“Lead.  Follow.  Or get out of the way.”  This statement is attributed to Thomas Paine and, later, to General George S. Patton. Used often, it points to the vital importance of leadership at every level:  at home, in the local community, at church, in the military, and in the nation—to name just a few places.

Nowhere is leadership—or the lack of it—more critical than at the national level.  Out of all the personal qualities needed in the President of the United States, the others pale into insignificance compared to this.  Presidential leadership gives us security:  a sense that someone not only cares but has the ability and the willingness to impact the situation—no matter what that might be.  Presidential leadership is also vital to national security:  It gives reassurance to our citizens and our allies and puts our adversaries on notice.  Strong leadership is a deterrent to bad actors on the international stage.

In 2011, the White House coined the phrase “leading from behind” to characterize then-President Barack Obama’s strategy on Libya.  It is definitely an odd phrase and flies in the face of most all the principles of effective leadership.  And we know how Obama’s grand strategy worked in Libya:  To this day, it is a failed state and a harbor for international terrorism.  Thousands died there, including our own U.S. Ambassador and three other embassy staff members. However, it seems that Obama’s Vice President, who is now our President, still embraces that style of leadership.  Like many other people and practices—the Biden Administration is a carryover of the eight years of President Obama.

War rages in Europe and the Ukrainian people feel the brunt of Russian cruelty and aggression.  Last week, as President Biden convened with the leaders of NATO and the G-7, weak leadership was on full display. After an emergency meeting of NATO, one expected more in the statement by our President after.  He did not deliver. He actually talked about the next presidential election and that he could beat Donald Trump if Trump ran again.  Really?  Biden failed to inspire.  He equivocated when asked about possible future responses to Putin. He denied that he ever said that sanctions would deter Putin—something factually inaccurate.

It is not that President Biden’s statements are bad; rather they are rambling, inconsistent, and weak.  They lack conviction and clarity.  His words fail to inspire. In his responses to Vladimir Putin, Biden lacks the conviction and clarity of President George H. W. Bush and his response to another aggressor who invaded a neighbor, Saddam Hussein.  Bush was unequivocal:  This will not stand!

Ironically, strong, clear leadership is one of the surest ways to avoid war and conflict.  A perception of weakness by our enemies invites aggression.  To take a distinctive stand does not provoke a wider war, as the Biden Administration fears.  Military strength and the political will to use it if necessary is one of the surest ways to not be forced into using it.  If we have a strong military presence in a geopolitical neighborhood and our enemies believe we are willing to use it—very few enemies want to pick a fight with the United States and our allies.

President Biden was both late and hesitant in his response to Russia’s threatening behavior to Ukraine. Putin began to menace Ukraine on its border with thousands of additional troops a mere two months after Biden took office.  Biden dallied as to both what type of equipment to send to Ukraine and when to send it. The previous Administration had approved a huge weapons shipment to Ukraine.  Biden postponed the shipment until August.  Even then it was mainly defensive weaponry.  More robust lethal weapons for the Ukrainian forces came much later — some arrived a mere two weeks before Russia invaded; others have yet to arrive.

With the world crying out for leadership, Biden tends to follow.  He increased sanctions on Russia recently only after Members of his own party joined with other Members of Congress and implored him to do more.  He followed their suggestions.  People urged him early on to address the importance of actively enlisting Europe and NATO in the stand against Russia; eventually, he followed their advice.  Members of Congress had to beg him to send more military equipment and weapons to Ukraine; finally, he followed their counsel.  Some members of NATO and of our own national leadership are imploring Biden to let Poland give the MIG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine.  More than likely, Biden will eventually give in and approve the transfer.

Meanwhile, President Biden refuses to adjust his obsession with climate change and make mid-course corrections on his energy policies.  When the world is in crisis, Biden needs to be willing to step back (even temporarily) to offer Europe energy independence from Russia and help the American people who are victims of record-high gas prices.  Biden needs to stop the restrictions on the energy industry he invoked by Executive order.  Now some members of his own party are advocating for this.  We hope that, true to his nature, the President will follow in this instance, too.

More can be done to defend and assist Ukraine, without U.S. or NATO troops on the ground in Ukraine.  It can be done without a U.S.-enforced No-Fly Zone.  The Ukrainians are brave and capable—and have proved it.  Give them everything they need to militarily counter Putin’s Russia.  This includes an endless supply of weapons, ammunition, food, and fuel.  Additionally, give them anti-ship missiles to defend their coast and deter the Russian warships that are there.  We must give them sophisticated missile defense systems to defend against Russian air attacks, whether it be the S-300 system which some of our NATO allies have, or our own Patriot Missile batteries.

Decades of peace, stability, and established borders in Europe are at stake.  Seventy years of relative peace is being lost.  There is the possibility that it could get worse before it gets better.  The Biden Administration started out trying to deter Putin from invading Ukraine.  Putin turned the tables:  He is now deterring the U.S. and Europe from reacting and stopping him.

The more the U.S. and Europe fall for Putin’s bullying and even threats of nuclear war, the more aggressive Putin will become.  As David Gompert wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “[T]he more we signal that the U.S. dreads nuclear war more than Russia does, the less restrained Mr. Putin will be in Ukraine, and the more Ukrainian lives will be lost.”  Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) kept the world safe and eventually ended the Cold War.  Putin knows it still exists.  If his threats work to stop NATO from acting now, what will we do when Putin uses that threat to attack a NATO ally?

Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin was a leader during the French Revolution.  He is reported to have watched a crowd of people rushing by his location.  He said, “Quick!  My sword.  I am their leader, and I must follow them!”  Think about the implications of that kind of leadership for a moment.  Ukrainian President Zelensky’s request to Biden as he addressed the U.S. Congress was touching: “We need for you to be the leader of the world.”  Yes, indeed we do.  No other nation and no other leader is in a position to impact events and eventually bring about peace and stability than the U.S. and our President.  Mr. President, lead us.  Appear fearless, even if the risks are great and the dangers real.  Be decisive; do not take counsel from your doubts and fears.  Rally the people and all that is great and noble in the American spirit; they will follow you.  But you must lead.

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