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US government open for business but leadership doubts remain

Dr George Conyne, an expert in American constitutional, political and diplomatic history at the University, suggests that the deal this week (17 October) to bring the US government shut-down to an end may only represent a temporary fix and that the episode has highlighted fundamental questions of leadership.

He comments: ‘The re-opening of the American government is a sign that even the small group of small-government extremists in Washington are not willing to hold the government and the American people hostage. That is the good news. The bad news is that the country may be in the exact same position early in the new calendar year. That is the medium-term problem.

‘The longer term problem is the question of where any political leadership was in this controversy. President Obama exhibited some. However, his fixed stance, of opposition to negotiation until the immediate crisis had passed, did not allow for creative leadership. The Senate leaders of both parties also showed some, but in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives showed no leadership whatsoever - which is especially odd in a chamber whose rules favour the leadership. Historically, the Senate is the chamber that looks after the privileges of individual members much more carefully.

‘But the lack of strong leadership throughout this crisis points to a sense that the United States is taking its longstanding rhetorical devotion to equality seriously. Over the last 75 years, the American people tended to defer to their leaders during the Great Depression (1929-39), the Second World War (1939-45) and the Cold War (1947-91). But since 1991, there has been no overwhelming reason to continue that stance.

‘Government, formerly trusted, is regarded with suspicion, if not dismissed as "the problem”. And, since the Cold War, the internet has opened thousands and thousands of communication and broadcast portals. Views that once might have been dismissed as "insufficiently mainstream" are now to be found easily. So the question is: How can one lead in this egalitarian cacophony? This week proves we are still waiting for an answer and a style of leadership shaped by the character of this age.’

Dr Conyne is a member of the Centre for American Studies, which is part of the University’s School of History.


Story published at 3:40pm 18 October 2013

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Last Updated: 12/06/2013