Leadership requires the ability to make a decision.
To register a vote in the Illinois General Assembly, lawmakers have a choice of three buttons on their desk. The "yes" button is green. The "no" button is red, and the "present" button is yellow, says Rich Miller, who writes and publishes The Capitol Fax, a daily newsletter and blog on Illinois politics.
"There's a saying in Springfield that there's a reason why the present button is yellow," Miller says. (source)
Chicken Button Video Transcript:
MAN: Senator Obama, you tell us you’re ready to lead America? Why didn’t you choose to lead Illinois? Do you remember the three buttons that were in front of you in the Senate? The green button for Yes, the red button for No, and the one you used one hundred and twenty nine times: the “Chicken Button”. Why, Senator, were you so consistently afraid to take a stand?
ANNOUNCER: What happens when we elect a Senator who loves the Chicken Button? Please, America, let’s never find out.
During his speech announcing his run for president, Obama said:
"What's stopped us is the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics - the ease with which we're distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions,"
That's what he said. What he did is a bit different. According to the New York Times, as an Illinois state senator, Barack Obama voted 'present' 130 times.
"An examination of Illinois records shows at least 36 times when Mr. Obama was either the only state senator to vote present or was part of a group of six or fewer to vote that way."
Interestingly, many of the votes were politically sensitive. At times, Obama was the only lawmaker voting "present" on bills winning near unanimous support, even on issues he supported and on one he actually sponsored.
His record shows a number of occasions when Obama avoided making hard choices - on votes that reflect the officeholder's core values.
For example, in 1997, Obama voted "present" on two bills (HB 382 and SB 230) that would have prohibited a procedure often referred to as partial birth abortion. He also voted "present" on SB 71, which lowered the first offense of carrying a concealed weapon from a felony to a misdemeanor and raised the penalty of subsequent offenses.
In 1999, Obama voted "present" on SB 759, a bill that required mandatory adult prosecution for firing a gun on or near school grounds. The bill passed the state Senate 52-1. Also in 1999, Obama voted "present" on HB 854 that protected the privacy of sex-abuse victims by allowing petitions to have the trial records sealed. He was the only member to not support the bill.
In 2001, Obama voted "present" on two parental notification abortion bills (HB 1900 and SB 562), and he voted "present" on a series of bills (SB 1093, 1094, 1095) that sought to protect a child if it survived a failed abortion. In his book, the Audacity of Hope, on page 132, Obama explained his problems with the "born alive" bills, specifically arguing that they would overturn Roe v. Wade. But he failed to mention that he only felt strongly enough to vote "present" on the bills instead of "no."
And finally in 2001, Obama voted "present" on SB 609, a bill prohibiting strip clubs and other adult establishments from being within 1,000 feet of schools, churches, and daycares.
If Obama had taken a position for or against these bills, he would have pleased some constituents and alienated others. Instead, the Illinois legislator-turned-U.S. senator and, now, Democratic presidential hopeful essentially took a pass. (source)
Obama and his campaign defend the 'present' votes as being due to concerns about certain provisions of the bill or questions about constitutionality. But a 'no' vote would have worked just as well - except it wouldn't have given him political cover.
In the White House, there isn't a yellow button, but there is something similar. A president can decide to do nothing, but that's not leadership and such lack of decisiveness can result in disastrous consequences. This is not something I want to risk, so let's never find out.