How Obama can make up for his leadership gap

Barack Obama delivers a speech at the Universi...

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At the one-year anniversary of Obama taking office, we’re witnessing a nationwide chilling effect of arctic proportions. A movement fueled by passion has morphed into a static bureaucracy drained of emotion. 

What happened?  Are people just fickle and chronically dissatisfied?  Did Obama’s followers have too high hopes of what could actually be achieved?  Has the recession jaded the population to the point of not caring?

While all of those factors, particularly the recession, play a role in what’s happening, the real issue has less to do with what’s going on “out there” and more to do with the psychological underpinnings of leadership.  Obama’s critical misstep has little to do with executive competence and much to do with misperceiving where administration ends and leadership begins.

When Obama took office he was riding a surge of emotion that wasn’t sustainable, as anyone paying attention knew. But that’s not really the problem. Political movements don’t maintain consistent energy levels no matter who is leading them, and change should be expected—as I’m sure it was by Obama’s cadre. The real problem starts when you’re unable to manage change from one level to the next, and anticipate what’s necessary to be effective at the next level.

This is where a skilled communications advisor (someone psychologically astute but pragmatically focused), would point out that “moving to the next level” can be viewed from an insular perspective or an external perspective. From an insular perspective, the next level is all about competence. You sold your product, now it’s time to execute.  From an external perspective, the next level is about doing what you said you’d do, but also maintaining a vibrant emotional connection with those who bought your goods. 

Both perspectives are valid, but embracing one to the exclusion of the other is suicide. And for most of the last year, Obama and his team’s perspective has been decidedly insular. The result is that all of Obama’s coldly intellectual and aloof characteristics have been amplified. When he addresses the nation, it’s as an administrator, not a leader—and that’s just not good enough.

Problem is, people want competence, but they don’t want a competent administrator running the nation. They want an impassioned and effective leader who never loses external perspective. Obama seemed to offer that rare combination before he was elected, but since entering office he’s lost the connection.

The hypothetical communications advisor I mentioned could help turn this around. That person would tell the President that people need more than “I’m doing my job.”  Telling people you’re doing your job, in whatever erudite way you say it, does nothing to quell their fears or validate what they’re experiencing. And when you reach out to the electorate, drop the lecture prose and stoicism–that’s how administrators talk, not leaders. Further, don’t think that relying on shtick like writing for Newsweek or showing up in a Weathproof ad can supplement what you’re missing.  It doesn’t, and eventually it’ll all be viewed as just another chip off the thin veneer covering your lack of leadership.

Most importantly, the advisor would tell Obama that he has to stop ducking disillusionment. You can’t make everyone happy, and leaders don’t even try. You’re going to let a percentage of your supporters down no matter what.  But if you allow your fear of doing so push you further into an insular perspective, the situation can only get worse. Before long, people will wonder if they have a leader at all, or just an aloof administrator running a bloated, visionless bureaucracy. 

Obama needs to take stock at the one-year mark and inject some new thinking into his leadership approach. Let the bureaucrats muddle and ponder. Let the administrators administrate. The President must lead. If he doesn’t, the next three years are going to make the Ford administration look dynamic.

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7 thoughts on “How Obama can make up for his leadership gap

  1. I don’t know how many ways you can say that Obama lost his momentum and his base to his patronizing, stand offish, vaguely smelly style of governing.

  2. I’m afraid you’re going to receive the blast of my frustration with a lot of people who’ve been talking about “leadership.” I’m of the opinion that “leadership” is a nonsense concept that Americans evoke when they don’t like the fact that their democracy requires compromise.

    When I press people on what they mean by “leadership” they usually want something undemocratic, like for the president to enact laws (Congress’s job) without input from Congress or without concern about judicial response. In other words, they want a government that only has an executive branch. What they really want, in practical democratic terms, is for Congress to do what the president wants rather than what Congressional constituencies want.

    You’ll recall that George W. Bush was utterly feckless and unpopular until 9/11, when the political winds shifted so that Congress could scarcely oppose the executive, even when he was doing something obviously wrong and stupid (spying on Americans, invading Iraq, torturing people, abducting people and sending them to Guantanamo). Suddenly Bush was showing “leadership.” But in fact, nothing changed about Bush’s deep psychological underpinnings (to our great detriment). Something changed in the balance of power and the politics of compromise.

    In your own post, you refer to leadership as deep psychology but your suggestions involve communication. Marketing is not about the deep psychology of the president; it’s about the deep psychology of the public.

    Obama has gotten comprehensive health care reform through the House and through the first procedural vote in the Senate. That’s further than the Clintons got. He’s also accomplished more on the environment than Bill Clinton did in eight years, like, for one example, raising auto emissions standards. Clinton was afraid to do that.

    Did Bill Clinton show more leadership? It seems to me that Bill Clinton, who was a huge disappointment in his first two years, learned to go with the flow of compromise. Remember all that business about governing by polls? Remember how he sometimes resembled a Republican? That’s when he suddenly seemed to acquire “leadership.”

    But certainly, that’s not leadership.

    Obama is pressing an agenda that conflicts with the heavily compromised agenda of Congress, which is not what Bush did, not what Clinton did, when they seemed to possess “leadership.” Pressing one’s own agenda, it seems to me, is closer to what leadership would mean if it actually meant something. It’s also very difficult in a democracy.

    When presidents get desperate for that elusive quality of “leadership,” that is, for a shift in the politics of compromise, they usually start a war. You’ll notice that all presidents have their wars. Didn’t Clinton start one the day he was impeached?

    Because he inherited two tiresome wars, Obama doesn’t have that option. So all he can do is lead. And that, ironically, makes him appear, to some, to lack leadership.

    • Jeff, I could not disagree more. You are implying that people who are disappointed with Obama are uneducated as to the workings of the Federal Government. I have heard that argument a few times and find it condescending at best. A leader does not have to start a war to push an agenda, neither do they have to circumvent congress. While it may be considered naive at this point in our society, people still crave a leader whose words correspond to honest effort. Cynics may scoff, but there is nothing wrong with hope for something more than what has been the status quo in Washington. Obama not only accepted that mantle but encouraged it as he promoted himself during his campaign. I have no illusions as to his power over the congress or lobbyists, but I did expect him to draw the line on issues that got him elected. That was the change we were expecting. Not that he would win every battle, or even one, but that he would exercise the courage of his convictions as he stated them during his campaign.

      • Scott, I’m implying no such thing. I’m arguing that the term “leadership” in this context does not succeed in explaining the political situation. Though common, efforts to explain complex political circumstances through the psychology of a single individual often fail to explain. Your own comments are a good example: honest effort, the courage of his convictions. Buzz words. Empty phrases. These phrases substitute for actual explanations.

        Scott, I also did not say a president has to start a war to push an agenda. You’re right that it doesn’t always require a war. But bloodshed often alters the politics of compromise. We have the 1964 Civil Rights Act thanks to an assassination.

        You position yourself as a disillusioned Obama supporter, so when you say, in your first comment above, that Obama lost his momentum, you’re really making a claim about your own psychology. Where’s the courage of your convictions?

      • You make such powerful indictments without nuanced distinction. Demonstrating the courage of one’s convictions does not cement one to a failing leader or ideology. That would be the myopic conservative view demonstrated by those on the right who never questioned Bush or the congress during the past 8 years. Your comments reflect the all too common American trait of conflating two concepts or notions into one, without recognizing distinction. Again, many like myself are discouraged by Obama’s waffling on the issues. We can debate all day as to the obstacles Obama or any other “leader” faces in the current environment in DC. That doesn’t change the observation that Obama’s campaign rhetoric and energy changed shortly after taking office. Suddenly it all became about compromise and gifts to the very entities that had flourished under the Bush administration.

  3. Jeff – Looks like our biggest point of contention is the meaning of leadership. You seem to be arguing that it’s nothing but a popular buzz word signifying little. But if that’s the case, I’m having a difficult time understanding what criteria we should use to judge the effectiveness of our leaders beyond their ability to compromise.

    I understand, and agree, that a great deal getting things done in D.C. involves compromise. I think that goes without saying. But to leap from that position to the conclusion that “leadership” is either an empty term or a proxy for undemocratic power lust doesn’t strike me as logical.

    As to the role of communication, my position is that the external (or you might say “front facing”) dimension of leadership is as critical as the internal, character dimension. The reason being, all communication is receiver-oriented, and leaders are obliged to create and maintain an emotional connection with those they lead. My argument in the post is, in part, that Obama has lost that connection.

    • “I’m having a difficult time understanding what criteria we should use to judge the effectiveness of our leaders beyond their ability to compromise.”

      David, that’s easy. We can judge leaders by their actions given the actual political conditions in which they’re operating. Let me give you an example that I’m particularly familiar with (but it’s just one example). Obama advocated a carbon cap during the campaign. We’ve seen a lot of action on the climate, like those auto emissions standards I mentioned, but we don’t yet have a carbon cap. Failure of leadership?

      The president put a carbon cap and trade program in his budget. Congress took it out. The House wrote its own, watered down version, heavy with giveaways to industry, and passed it. The Senate version is stuck and will have to get even more watery and pork-filled to pass.

      With the Senate stalling, the president enacted the power to do cap and trade through the Clean Air Act, via the EPA. But unlike a new law, a regulation faces lawsuits on day one if it’s ever enacted, which it might never be, because today senators from both parties introduced a resolution to block EPA regulation of greenhouse gases. Why did those senators do that? They’re from oil states.

      The fight goes on. Obama has done as much as could be expected on greenhouse gases and more than any other president ever has. Ever.

      Is this a failure of his deep psychology or his communication skills? It doesn’t help matters when people like our friend Scott would rather see it that way than keep hope alive, as it were, by holding members of Congress accountable.

      A great many issues look just like that. We could take them one at a time. We’re only one year in.

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