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Jeffrey Pfeffer
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Jeffrey Pfeffer

Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, and author of the Sept. 2010 book, POWER: Why Some People Have it and Others Don’t.

A failure to communicate

Barack Obama electrified the Democratic convention in 2004 with his speech and his oratory was a significant factor in his winning first the Democratic nomination and then the presidency. Indeed, some of his opponents accused him of being too much about words. How ironic, then, that as I look back at Obama's first year in office, what is most notable is this administration's failure to craft compelling messages frequently repeated--to control or at least significantly influence how the nation views its most pressing issues.

Health care provides one notable example. Attempting to reassure people, the message has been that those that like their present arrangements won't have to change--which raises the question of why anyone should support something new that might not provide them with any benefit. Meanwhile, the public debate has been framed in terms of dollars and cents and technocratic details about Medicaid reimbursement and the methods of paying doctors and hospitals for their work. Although these are important factors affecting health care, they are not very compelling or emotionally engaging.

Ironically, this very year, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health estimated that more than 44,000 Americans died unnecessarily each year because they did not have access to health insurance. This is a finding scarcely surprising given the enormous body of evidence that shows that people without health insurance, or even those whose coverage was temporarily interrupted, are less likely to obtain preventive screening tests. Another recent study that reported a 20% decrease in death rates for people on Medicare compared to those who, because of when their birthday fell, did not yet have access to the program. 44,000 people is 14 World Trade Centers--and completely preventable.

The financial crisis provides another illustration. Economists were unanimous that the country could not just sit by and wait for the worst economic collapse since the Depression to cure itself. But by failing to explain often enough and clearly enough the facts and the philosophy behind the intervention, Obama will get too little credit for staving off what could have been an even more catastrophic collapse. Indeed, support for the stimulus package is remarkably weak.

In speaking about the work of building organizational culture, Jack Welch talked about the need for leaders to be relentless and boring--to repeat, more often than a leader felt necessary, a message that would resonate, help people make sense of what was going on and what they needed to do, and remind them of what the overarching vision and objectives were. The importance of language is widely recognized in studies of leadership.

It is ironic that Barack Obama has yet to truly find his voice--to be able to find themes that engage in the emotions and also have the discipline to, with his cabinet secretaries and the rest of his team, pound those messages home through repetition of the facts and the use of compelling language and images. This weakness has left the Democrats on the defensive and his reform agenda very much at risk.

By Jeffrey Pfeffer

 |  January 19, 2010; 5:46 AM ET
Category:  Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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He left health care to Congress because they have all said something is better than nothing. It's just a notch in his belt and then he's on to making another notch.

Posted by: kathy26 | January 19, 2010 2:25 PM
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I've read more about his dates, lavish events at the White House and his global travels than I ever care to read about any president.

He and Michelle have been so caught up in the glitz, the glamour and her wardrobe that everything else has spiraled downward.

They are truly a celebrity couple, which this country doesn't need in the White House.
Everyone was charmed by his words but he's a shallow suit with no substance. He looks tired and out of words.

Posted by: kathy26 | January 19, 2010 2:23 PM
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The country got what it deserved when it let the mainstream media and the celebrity hype get Obama elected.

Posted by: kathy26 | January 19, 2010 2:21 PM
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Obama's failure of communication has been devastating. He has failed to enunciate a single principle on which policy can be based. His own party does not know where he stands on any issue. Consequently he has lost control of the agenda, letting the Republicans identify him.

Obama seems to have no inner core, no standards ( his healthcare bill is lousy), no political savvy and no beliefs. The bloom went off the rose within a week of his presidency when he let Pelosi write the stimulus bill and left the Republicans out o the process. That set the tone for his administration.

The country is sick of his over exposure on magazine covers, interviews about his marriage and celebrity like persona. Many of us see Obama as a flimflam man, an empty suit, who confuses rhetoric with actions, and silent timidity with leadership.

Posted by: elsasands1 | January 19, 2010 9:09 AM
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The "great communicator", this president is NOT !! How does he expect to be a great leader if he does not inform the people in which direction he is going? Leaving the health care reform to Congress is simply sending the wrong message to the people. As I see it, Congress is not responsive to the needs of the majority of people. Partisan bickering is at an all time high. There is a greater divide in this nation than I have ever seen....this cannot go on!

Posted by: SeniorVet | January 19, 2010 7:46 AM
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