On Leadership
Video | PostLeadership | FedCoach | | Books | About |
Exploring Leadership in the News with Steven Pearlstein and Raju Narisetti

Nancy Koehn

Nancy Koehn

Nancy F. Koehn is a historian at the Harvard Business School and author, most recently, of The Story of American Business: From the Pages of the New York Times.

Dizzying fall from grace

This week marks the one-year anniversary of Barack Obama's inauguration as the country's 44th president.

Remember that day? The palpable sense of hope and possibility that seemed everywhere: in the crowds massed on the Mall, in Yo Yo Ma's hands as he held his cello in the frigid air, in Obama's opening lines to his inaugural speech about a "new era of responsibility." We all knew the problems facing the country were grave and the stakes very, very high. But many of us--from across the political spectrum and in other nations as well--thought that the man elected as president was a strong bet to lead the country along the higher road as it faced great, pressing challenges at home and abroad.

Can it really be only a year since that day? The hopes we harbored, the promises--spoken and unsaid--that Obama offered, and the political possibilities that the 2008 elections created have been dashed so badly against the rocks of the president's actions and the larger stage that January 20, 2009 seems a lifetime ago.

Every new president takes up power in the glow of public approval. And inevitably this glow fades, as the honeymoon period ends and the reality of governing in an increasingly factionalized (and mercenary) political system sets in. Still, few presidents have fallen so far and so fast in the public's estimation as Obama. And few have squandered as much political capital in the first year has Obama has. And even fewer have elicited the widespread sense of disappointment and anger that Obama's first year in office has.

Witness what is happening here in Massachusetts where the special election to fill the Senate seat Teddy Kennedy occupied for 46 years has turned into a surprising referendum--not on the candidates or their qualifications but rather on the president's health care initiative and his leadership agenda more generally.

As a historian trying to puzzle out what in certain moments seems a dizzying fall from grace, I am reminded of Abraham Lincoln's first year of office and the situation he found himself in as 1862 opened. Obama, who claimed to be a student of Lincoln while he was on the campaign trail, needs to go back to the 16th presidency now and take a long, hard look at where Lincoln was as his second year commenced.

Like the current president, Lincoln was assaulted by urgent problems from every side: the Civil War was going badly for the Union, and his main general, George McClellan, refused to march on Confederate troops; radical elements in his own party, some of whom were called the Jacobins, concluded the president was incompetent (indeed, Lincoln's attorney general, Edward Bates, said the president "lacked will and purpose, and I greatly fear he, has not the power to command"); his treasury secretary had few funds to keep fighting the war, telling Lincoln he could raise no more; and most Northerners were impatient for a more vigorous prosecution of the war. As Lincoln himself said in early January to the Quartermaster General, "The bottom is out of the tub...What shall I do?" (Less than seven weeks later, the Lincoln's beloved son Willie died at age 11, and the president's situation grew even darker).

What Lincoln did in the first six months of 1862--with critically important consequences for the fate of the country--was to find his own leadership backbone. In the crucible of his own failure and anxiety that winter, he found a clearer focus, a new resolve about the importance and purpose of saving the Union--a resolve that would by mid-summer result in his drafting the Emancipation Proclamation, a new well of confidence in himself and his position that would help him discern whom he could trust and who had to be fired around him, and finally, a deeper understanding of the power of the presidency and how to use that power in service to his mission.

Barack Obama's most surprising weakness in his first year as president has been his own inability to find his leadership backbone and to draw from this core strength and animating purpose to really lead -- that is, to focus on the most important problems, to articulate and then embrace the central mission of his presidency, and then to take up the reins of presidential power to advance this mission, even at the expense of challenge and hostility from other powerful players.

At this, a defining moment for the United States, the president is surrounded by external hurdles. But the single biggest factor affecting the fate of our nation may well be how Barack Obama navigates his own internal landscape as a leader.

By Nancy Koehn

 |  January 19, 2010; 1:59 PM ET
Category:  Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: In praise of steadiness | Next: Limits of a silver tongue


Please report offensive comments below.

The main problem is not that Obama is an elitest. It's that he's a narcissist.

Posted by: toshiro1 | January 20, 2010 12:18 AM
Report Offensive Comment

Lincoln didn't read from a teleprompter, nor was he hideously disfluent and arrogant. Lincoln didn't have a crew of Chicago politicothugs working his program. Lincoln was a leader. Obama is an elitist, opportunistic politician who can't fool his own fans any longer.

Posted by: surfbum | January 19, 2010 11:36 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Please do not insult Lincoln by comparing Obama to him.

Posted by: kisna | January 19, 2010 11:21 PM
Report Offensive Comment

As someone suggested earlier, Lincoln inherited unbelievably major problems to address. Obama, conversely, has created some of his biggest ones. Worse yet, he shows every indication of being too weak to deal with them. Actions inspire much more so than pontifications. When you publicly state that you intend to deal with and fix all problems immediately upon taking the oath, you will wind up successfully fixing few if any of them. This is especially so when you put most of your marbles in the polarizing health care pot and leave it up to the politicians to bail you out. Clinton learned early on, drop the hot potato before it incinerates you. Obama was apparently too naive to get the message,. Unfortunately, he may already be a lame duck.

Posted by: wp318676 | January 19, 2010 11:03 PM
Report Offensive Comment

"You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift.
You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.
You cannot help the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer.
You cannot further the brotherhood of man by encouraging class hatred.
You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich.
You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than you earn.
You cannot build character and courage by taking away man’s initiative and independence.
You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves." - Abraham Lincoln.
Pretty much the antithesis of Obama who wants to give everything to everybody but the people who work for it. No wonder Dems lost in Mass. today. You need to wake up and listen to the people of the US Mr. President or you will surely fail.

Posted by: profmoriarty | January 19, 2010 10:09 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Obama is no Lincoln.

Posted by: JCM-51 | January 19, 2010 10:08 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Obama is no Lincoln.

Posted by: JCM-51 | January 19, 2010 10:05 PM
Report Offensive Comment

There was a single overriding issue in 1862 that bound Republicans together, whether they liked Lincoln or not: slavery/secession/Union preservation. There were no issues of choice or preference, and no room for debate. You either backed the Union or you didn't.

There is no single issue remotely approaching that magnitude today. So you could make the argument that support among Republicans for Lincoln was far easier to come by, given what was at stake, that Democrat support for Obama today.

Beyond that, comparing Obama to Lincoln is as ridiculous as it it unfair: When you seek to compare a mere mortal to a God, the mortal always comes up short.

Posted by: loulor | January 19, 2010 10:04 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Obama is no Lincoln.

Posted by: JCM-51 | January 19, 2010 10:02 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Sorry, there are no valid comparisons between Obama and Lincoln. Compared to the challenges Lincoln had to deal with during his presidency, Obama has it very easy.

Lincoln was cautious during his first year partly because he did not want to drive the border states, especially Kentucky into the Confederacy. He was an exceptionally adept politician and far better communicator than Obama.

Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | January 19, 2010 9:49 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Americans are known for short memories, but some of the comments are ridiculous! To ombudsman1: the S&L crisis was paid off by the US Gov't under GHWB. Remember the $1.3B bailout to Neil Bush's Siverado S&L? The national debt exploded under Reagan & GWHB, and definitely W. The bank bailout was done under W in 2008, not Obama.

Plus, it is ludicrous to compare the simultaneous cratering of the banks, auto companies, and the stock market with the S&L crisis! that's quite a stretch.

Posted by: arpy58 | January 19, 2010 9:32 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Perhaps anyone who makes it into the Oval Office with limited political leadership experience is destined to make serious mistakes early on. It is a far cry from being a US Senator to being President. Those presidents who have been state governors, for example, know what it is like to deal with the consequences of enacting decisions, and know how important it is to have people around them who can accomplish tasks, not just generate ideas.

The President is a novice at governing, and well intentioned though he is, he will continue to make mistakes, especially if he continues to believe that there is any momentum left from his election. Regardless of their political stripes, Americans are famously pragmatic about matters of government and prefer their presidents to get things done. It will be a matter of how quickly he can learn and recover from his mistakes as to whether or not he will have a successful presidency in the eyes of the electorate.

Posted by: mmaclean05 | January 19, 2010 9:30 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Obama is not Abe Lincoln, any more than Yo Yo Ma was really playing the cello that day.

Ellen S. Story, Charlotte, NC

Posted by: jstory | January 19, 2010 9:15 PM
Report Offensive Comment

The proverbial nail has been hit on its head. The "animating purpose to lead" and inspire has disappeared into some curious vacuum. Where is the great orator who aroused our hopes during the election? It's as if he discovered Cheney's "undisclosed location" somewhere beneath the White House and has hidden himself inside. As Ms. Koehn says, he needs to articulate, to lead. He needs to rediscover his backbone and counterattack the haters, the egomaniacal right-wingers whose only wish is to destroy him for political gain. Courage, Mr. President. We need you back. We'll follow, but we need you to lead.

Posted by: arundel1 | January 19, 2010 9:02 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Abraham Lincoln was a singular individual and unique unto himself. No one can be compared to a legend and be found his equal.

We are each the master of our owh fate and legacy. History annoints a president and defines his legacy. The totality of his tenure is thus assessed.

Premature, incomplete analysis nets flawed data. In the fullness of time we will be able to measure the man.

Posted by: hakafos44 | January 19, 2010 9:01 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Lincoln had real, actual issues to deal with. Obama's issues are no more than Bush Sr. had to deal with (remember the savings and loan crisis?)

The difference, dear Nancy, is that Bush Sr. did not give away $1T to bankers. That's probably for two reasons: (a) He had a helluva lot more integrity than Obama, and (b) it would never occur to Bush Sr. to mortgage our children's future to pay off political debts.

Posted by: Ombudsman1 | January 19, 2010 8:39 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Obama is no Abe Lincoln, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, FDR, or anyone else that you might want to imagine. These men stood for something, but Obama stands for nothing except what his corporatist handlers tell him to. Without them he would be nothing except a socialist operative attempting to enslave his own people with entitlement programs.

Posted by: websmith1 | January 19, 2010 8:32 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Not even Lincoln could correct in one short year what it took George Bush eight years to mess up. When President Obama took office the US economy was still standing on the abyss of Depression, a situation left him by the previous administration. The American Public are either too impatient or suffer from severe short term memory when it comes to the reality of Obama correcting this inherited mess in the short term.

Posted by: logcabin1836 | January 19, 2010 8:16 PM
Report Offensive Comment

I supported him strongly and actually helped in the campaign. Now I am really disappointed.

Posted by: JpAcosta | January 19, 2010 7:38 PM
Report Offensive Comment

George W. Bush will be called a great leader who not only coused chaos around the World, but committed War Crimes, Recession and much more to come out. Obama was judged before he took office as if he had Harry Potters Magic worn to clean up 8 years of mess. RNC has worked hard to make sure Obama and the USA fail, yet Americans seem to be clueless. Like the Titanic, people were warned to flee for safty yet they didn't. They partied and drank with music and when it was to late cried for help. Obama like all our former great Presidents couldn't did the job without the help of the people. Few remember this country belongs to " We the People". But we saw two Presidential Elections fixed and now the Senate race in Mass. is fixed as the ballots are pre punched for Scott Brown. Americans looked for Foreign Terrorist to destroy the US, while all along the real enemy is from within called the RNC and their supporters.

Posted by: qqbDEyZW | January 19, 2010 7:32 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Dizzying fall from grace? You'd think Professor Koehn was describing Lucifer himself.

Reading the comments here convinces me even more that Americans are nothing if not glued to the glib and the superficial, academics included. A snapshot at the end of one year says almost nothing about what the world will look like the year following.

Does Obama really have the backbone of a chocolate eclair the way the Professor describes? Does that make sense to anybody, really? I suggest we reign in the superficial superlatives and prepare ourselves for continued tumult and unclarity on all sides.

Posted by: corbinb | January 19, 2010 5:23 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Let me also add that many or most of you have little comprehension of Lincoln's first few years, or almost his whole presidency. He was attacked viciously from every side constantly, especially for his waffling on the commitment to the war. He was accused of everything, from being a coward to much worse and despicable things. He inherited a huge horrible mess that dragged on for almost his whole first term and almost sank his reelection. The triumph in Atlanta the final summer is what saved his campaign.

Posted by: arpy58 | January 19, 2010 5:22 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Oh PUH-LEESE, I'm a black person and I have to say, Obama is NO comparision to Lincoln. He really doesn't compare to ANY OTHER PRESIDENT that believes in American and our Constitution and our capitilistc way of living. He doesn't believe in this country and he nor his wife support this country....they are all about tearing at the very fiber of this country.

Posted by: ReneesOpinion | January 19, 2010 5:02 PM
Report Offensive Comment

I have heard several times now about Obama's "dizzying fall" -- compared to whom? The vaunted Reagan approval steadily fell after his assassination attempt to below 40% during the depths of the recession. Clinton's also fell to just over 40% during the middle of his first term. And W's was basically one long decline from 9/11 to the dismal end. All 3 won reelection. So let's not be exaggerating some historic decline now, especially since a lot, probably most, is related to the recession, and unlike Reagan Obama is still around 50%.

Posted by: arpy58 | January 19, 2010 5:01 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Make no mistake, Obama is NOT "like Lincoln"...

Posted by: wcmillionairre | January 19, 2010 5:00 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Comparing him only to Lincoln? - What a surprise, as I thought she surely would compare him to Jesus.

Posted by: Linda7 | January 19, 2010 4:45 PM
Report Offensive Comment

How stunningly pretentious. To compare this guy we now have as our President to Abraham Lincoln leaves me at a loss for words.

On the other hand, many years ago when I was once in high school I used to compare my running talents to the then world record holder, Jim Ryan. Unfortunately, the only thing we ever really had in common was that we were both required to circle a quarter mile track to win our races. Yes, in retrospect, it was a just sad case of a day dreaming boy trying to compare apples to soap dishes.

And so it goes...

Posted by: pgould1 | January 19, 2010 4:28 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Please...please Ms. Koehn...would McCain-Palin have our country in any better state than Obama has it? Who is it that you feel would be doing a better job? Everyone on here has forgotten THE OBVIOUS - OBAMA INHERITED ALL OF THESE PROBLEMS FROM BUSH!!!

Fall from grace? Are you serious?...are we really evalutating Obama after 1 year? And he fell from the grace of being what?...he was a Senator and now he is President...he fell from 67% approval to 50something% approval...last I remember, he has 3 more years...and realistically 5 more years to define his presidency....why?...b/c there is NO VIABLE ALTERNATIVE TO OBAMA!...and there is no one else better equipped to lead this country. People just need to hate someone and Obama is definitely the most convenient outlet for unjustified hate and criticism. REMEMBER BUSH-CHEANEY and the elitist no white house access style of leadership they ruled with?...Guess not b/c if you did, you would never write such an article.

Posted by: fedupwithbs | January 19, 2010 4:28 PM
Report Offensive Comment

More brain-dead hero-worship of The One by WAPO.

Posted by: mipost1 | January 19, 2010 4:21 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Wait....Obama is like Lincoln?

Posted by: Revcain777 | January 19, 2010 4:14 PM
Report Offensive Comment

As President Obama completes his first year in office, one has to look back on his predecessor, DUMBYA, who was more occupied with reading about pet goats to kindergartners on 9/11, and couldn't be bothered with physically rolling up his lily-white shirt sleeves to HELP pull people out of the rubble.

PRESIDENT Obama is far more intelligent and caring than the shrub ever was, and it shows.

Posted by: Alex511 | January 19, 2010 4:11 PM
Report Offensive Comment

These comments are revealing for the anger generated about anything Obama says or does. I have yearned for the perspective Koehn offers as I too am an admirer of Lincoln and continue to hope for Obama's growth and greatness as a President. Like Lincoln Obama faces problems and conflicts that came with the office and he shows great, inspired and intelligent willingness to confront them. We Americans have become so used to Presidents who think only on the day-to-day that when a strategic player comes to office we ignore how he's out to change the game that no longer plays. The vicissitudes of the electorate and the daily still shots of polls should be put in context. Like Lincoln this is a leader who is good and could be great.

Posted by: danny10 | January 19, 2010 4:03 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Considering EVERYTHING that is going on, at this moment, it's a wonder ANYONE can get ANYTHING done to the satisfaction of ANYONE. In Lincoln's day, the BANKS did not OWN America, like they do now. In Lincoln's day, the one WAR was internal and involved the very notion of "FREEDOM" itself. (The slaves were "let go" in 1865, and actually "FREED" in 1965!) In Lincoln's day, his ONLY focus WAS the WAR!. Bank meltdowns, healthcare, two military conflicts on foreign soil, and a scetchy global economy (China) did not occupy Lincoln's time.

You present a very simple argument to a very complex situation.

Posted by: MarineBugler | January 19, 2010 3:59 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Comparing Obama to Lincoln is just more of the foolish hyperbole that tries to make this empty suit from the Chicago machine something "great." He's a great con artist, but that's about it so far.
And this is not a "defining" moment--it's all part of the continuing downhill slide that the parasites in Washington are creating by serving their own selfish interests first, then lobbyists, then their high roller donors.

Posted by: Beckola | January 19, 2010 3:51 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Obama has nothing in common with Lincoln.

Lincoln actually worked for a living before his electon

Posted by: Obama_TRAITOR_in_Chief | January 19, 2010 3:29 PM

And you would know right? Can you tell me 10 things about Lincoln without googling it?

Posted by: horace1 | January 19, 2010 3:46 PM
Report Offensive Comment

I think what we have in this country is a "civilized civil war"...a civil war sans guns. The constant sniping at Obama, the filibustering by the republicans, the insane polarization in the country, the willingness of an increasing number of people to believe the worst about others. This thing will continue whether Obama is the President or someone else. America is beginning it's slow but sure decline , just like the imperial powers of the past. This time the empire will fall without guns not because Obama is doing anything wrong but simply because the rest of the world is catching up.

Posted by: horace1 | January 19, 2010 3:44 PM
Report Offensive Comment

What a absolute reach of a column. Read no further than the second paragraph. Obama was hailed as the Second Coming, Lincoln had to literally sneak into Washington. Bottom line, Lincoln triumphed over adversity, Obama generated adversity. Weak. Very, very weak.

Posted by: jd5024 | January 19, 2010 3:39 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Obama has nothing in common with Lincoln.

Lincoln actually worked for a living before his electon

Posted by: Obama_TRAITOR_in_Chief | January 19, 2010 3:29 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Obama is the antithesis of Abraham Lincoln.

Posted by: Jerzy | January 19, 2010 3:25 PM
Report Offensive Comment

What a stretch! Comparing obama to Lincoln!
Lincoln saved the Nation - obama is trying too ruin the Nation!
Even Mass. is rebelling! :-)

Posted by: thornegp2626 | January 19, 2010 3:15 PM
Report Offensive Comment

At least President Lincoln did'nt continue to blame his problems on Buchanan. Lincoln was more concerned about the welfare of the nation in difficult times; Obama, and his Democrat henchmen, only care about their party.

Posted by: CubsFan | January 19, 2010 3:11 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Barack Obama's most surprising weakness in his first year as president has been his own inability to find his leadership backbone and to draw from this core strength and animating purpose to really lead -- that is, to focus on the most important problems, to articulate and then embrace the central mission of his presidency, and then to take up the reins of presidential power to advance this mission, even at the expense of challenge and hostility from other powerful players. ==================================================

You are wrong. Finding his backbone is EXACTLY what Pres Obama did. He strove forward with his health care initiative. The candidates in Mass ARE talking about not the candidates, but OBAMA's health care initiative.

Obama strove forward to bring health care to all Americans. It's unfortunate you don't think that is a most important problem.

He used his leadership with the wars that he was handed. He used all the important thinkers to help him reach the decisions about sending troops in. He took his time, thought it through despite the folks who called him dithering. That's leadership. He didn't rush in with american lives on the line and in the line of fire like Bush/Chaney did.

Obama's leadership came into play to help the american people to be treated fairly by the credit card companies.

He put forth a stimulas package to keep people from starving and to keep businesses open.

He talked to the school children. Wash DC had the lowest homicide rate since 1964.

Young people are inspired to become better people.

And through all of this you still have the haters, the birthers and the tea-partiers trying to tear Obama down.

You have really nasty people insighting hate like Rush and Palin. You have the second guessers who already screwed every thing up like Chaney.

And you have people like you, Ms Koehn who try very hard to look for what is wrong with Pres Obama. You even had to go back and compare him with Lincoln.

This country needs to come together, work together and care about each other. But with people like Nancy Koehn and articles like this one, this country will not be as great as it can be.

Posted by: MUPPET | January 19, 2010 2:55 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Wow Obama as Lincoln that is stretching it.

The only similarity I see is that they both have one letter O in their last name.

Posted by: msmithnv | January 19, 2010 2:37 PM
Report Offensive Comment

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company