Beat the drum louder
Transformational presidents like Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt managed to find the right balance, in times of crisis, among three key dimensions of public leadership: policy, execution and communication. Communication, internally and externally, is by far the most important of the three, but the policy choices and implementation have to be solid as well to produce transformational results.
President Reagan distinguished himself as a "great communicator," though I would argue that his policies and their execution were inferior to his communication skills, so "transformational" is not the right adjective. Even with great communication skills, Reagan's approval ratings at the end of his first year were below 50 percent, largely because of economic stress and the fact that the "misery index" (as it was dubbed by his campaign) of unemployment, inflation, interest rates, remained unacceptably high.
President Obama came into office at a time of crisis, with the economy at risk of free fall, two unpopular wars underway, and the trends in health care, education and the environment going in the wrong direction. His election seemed transformational in and of itself--this intelligent, committed public servant who transcended the boundaries of age, race and conventional family pedigree to become the leader who inspired and energized us the most. He struck a resonant chord across the country when he said we had to change. "Yes we can" became the familiar chant at campaign rallies that drew record crowds everywhere he went. Expectations were in the stratosphere by the time he was inaugurated, so the force of gravity was inevitable.
The first year of Obama's presidency has produced an ambitious agenda for change, which congressional Republicans have resisted at every turn with chilling partisanship. Viewing the defeat of health-care reform as the "Waterloo" for Obama, the opposition party has shamelessly fanned the flames of misinformation and fear. But this should have come as no surprise to the president, his hill savvy staff or top notch cabinet. The case for their ambitious agenda, including health care reform, is quite compelling but we did not hear it--clearly and repeatedly--as we might have from Reagan or as we surely heard the drum beat of negative anti-reform slogans.
I give President Obama high marks for his policy choices: to stabilize the economy; to regulate the banks; to tackle the rising cost of health care and gaps in coverage; to improve the lagging educational achievement of our public schools; to create a market for alternative energy sources; to insist on exit strategies from Iraq and Afghanistan; to improve the sharing and use of information about security threats to our homeland, and to collaborate actively with the UN and other nations to respond to disasters such as the unbelievably terrible earthquake in Haiti.
President Obama is calm under pressure. He has risen to every challenge by calling on his excellent leadership team, considering a variety of perspectives and digging in to understand the implications of the choices he makes. He has worked hard and taken his responsibilities as president quite seriously. In doing so, he has neglected his strength as a great communicator in order to focus more in-depth on policy.
The loss of Ted Kennedy's seat in the Senate is clearly a wake up call but there is no reason to predict doom and gloom for the Obama Administration. This pointed reminder of the fears and frustrations of many Americans who are suffering needs to be heard. The good news is that it comes in time for the president and his team to find the right balance of policy, execution and communication--to give greater emphasis to engaging the public to shape and build ownership of the change agenda they so passionately welcomed just one year ago.
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