History judges a leader exclusively through his actions and their ultimate results rather than through fleeting words. It appears that U.S. President Barack Obama is finally putting the brakes on his mouth after flooring it down Hope-and-Change Highway for most of his tenure.
Remember the Syrian crisis that dominated chatter for months before all but vanishing? Recall how critics were talking about grievous incompetence and even possible impeachment? Fast-forward to today, and just try to start a conversation with, "Obama really botched the situation in Syria." Now that the Russians have overseen a plan for the destruction of that country's chemical arsenal and reeled in its leader, to what "botched" Syria situation would this even refer?
History records plane crashes, not turbulence -- although those on the flight itself might chatter about it. And therein lies the problem: the increasing disconnect between reality and the virtual world as people become more engrossed with social media and its real-time nature. Far too many observers are obsessed with second-by-second minutiae and the slightest twitches. The leader of a nation isn't tethered by social media or news feeds, nor should he be. In fact, that would make him unfit for leadership.
As a leader, you set the narrative, and that means not responding to people with their own agendas -- much like football players don't spend the game yelling into the stands at the fans of the opposing team. Arguably no recent American president understood this better than George W. Bush. It could be that Obama is now starting to get it, too.
Whether one agrees with him or not, Obama has been working to push through major reforms in areas ranging from health care to immigration to gun-control legislation. For all of its flaws, Obamacare is the most ambitious social safety net to be introduced in America in decades. A dramatic overhaul of immigration laws is likely to follow.
Presidents have a tactical decision to make: Either they can keep talking and painstakingly explaining their choices (as former U.S. President Bill Clinton was famous for doing throughout the turbulence of his mandate), or they can rhetorically retreat and let actions and outcomes speak for themselves. Bush was a fan of the action-over-rhetoric strategy, having all but eliminated any defensive communications efforts and preferring to let history write itself.
"Caution: Subjects are less prominent than they appear." That tagline should be attached to information that emerges from the tireless 24/7 news and information onslaught. In the moment, anything and everything can seem important, but only time can properly contextualize it. Polls are taken every few days. Only the latest one counts, and there's always another one coming right up.
When faced with a crisis, a smart leader asks himself: "Will history ascribe importance to this event? If so, what will be the greater context?" It is precisely with those questions in mind that a politician should speak -- or not. It's a mark of wisdom rather than arrogance not to be goaded into responding to things that don't meet these criteria for response. A leader, after all, is elected to lead, not to have his chain yanked by anyone who gives it a tug.
History doesn't have to be decided today, and it certainly won't be decided by self-appointed gatekeepers. The smart leader understands that no one comes home from a vacation and focuses on the five minutes of turbulence during return flight. For all the flack Bush received for his aggressive foreign-policy moves in response to the September 11th terrorist attacks, a June 2013 Gallup poll showed that his domestic approval rating had climbed to 49 percent after bottoming out at 32 percent in the last year of his final term. What did he do to earn such a substantial bump in popularity? Nothing that he wasn't criticized for during his presidency.
French presidents, from Jacques Chirac to Nicolas Sarkozy, are consistently more popular in the rearview mirror, after the dust has settled and the scope of their accomplishments becomes clearer.
Facts and truth don't need hand-holding. They find their way into history all by themselves.