Presidential 360 review
On the Daily Show earlier this week, Senior Black Correspondent Larry Wilmore said that President Obama is suffering from the "hard bigotry of high expectations."
The president campaigned on hope and the future, on addressing big issues that have languished for years like health care, climate change, and immigration. Yet, he had to govern through the Great Recession and two extant wars that have made the public relentlessly focused on the present.
As pundits hyperventilate about Massachusetts and this moment -- which is admittedly bad for the president and the Democrats -- they forget that (a) the Democrats never really had 60 votes, (b) few presidents have ever had a super-majority and are usually thrilled to have 51 votes in their caucus, (c) presidential parties typically lose seats during mid-terms and during recessions, and (d) a lot can happen over the next ten months.
So I am taking a deep breath and will assess what I think we have learned about the president's leadership.
First, I must recognize that we can learn about his leadership style and approach through the new books by Plouffe and Wolffe (as well as his own eloquent memoirs). David Plouffe's "Audacity to Win," which is as much a book on management as politics, portrays a candidate who was strategic, pragmatic, and disciplined. He and his team were rigorous about maintaining their long-term strategy and were willing to make hard and even unpopular decisions despite short-term swings in public or pundit opinion, staying intently focused on their goals. They built a culture that stimulated innovation without the ego, drama, and back-biting common in campaigns. And all of this originated with the leader.
Richard Wolffe's book Renegade, which is much more insightful about the president as a leader and individual, describes the self aware, curious, deliberate, disciplined, pragmatic and strategic leader. He is one who can see complexity and not get bogged down in conventional wisdom. He is willing to take hits in the short-term while moving toward his long-term goals. He is able to look realistically at people and situations and see the good and the bad and judge the nuance. He is willing to admit and learn from mistakes and not throw those who made honest mistakes under the bus. He lacks the base insecurity many politicians have. He has an ego for sure, but apparently a healthy one.
Many of these leadership qualities we continue to see in his governance style for good and for bad. The positive aspects of his leadership - self awareness, confidence in what he knows and what he doesn't, his ability to build strong teams of smart people and encourage deliberation and debate, his ability to admit mistakes, learn and change course, his discipline with strategy and execution, his willingness to make tough decisions, and of course, communication.
Despite these positive leadership qualities which will serve him well long-term, he has also fallen short in certain respects.
I think his biggest weakness has been engaging the reason of the people more than the passion. He abandoned the brand of change once he came to Washington. He smartly realized that he had to work with Congress to get things done, saw that the opposition party was not going to play ball, and therefore did not take on his own party. He chose to follow the Congress pragmatically seeing that the best chance of getting his legislative program passed was through collaborating, not attacking the Congress.
The problem is that people are angry, and distrust Congress. When the president's approval rating was in the 60s, Congress and the Republicans were in the 20s. Rather than using the movement and public opinion to influence Congress to act, he let the unpopular branch of government dwell in partisanship, back-room deals, earmarks, and grandstanding that derailed his agenda. Rather than the president and the people, it became about the president and the Congress.
He also missed the opportunity to tie all of the reform efforts that don't make the daily papers under the change umbrella. There are many popular, but unheralded programs and reforms such as ethics reforms, national service, educational innovation, cost cutting, and others that should be tied together under the bigger brand of change so that they share a theme that demonstrates change in governance. Change fuels passion, not reasoned compromise, and he needs to calibrate that better.
The good news for the president is that many great presidents went through periods of low approval, failure, and backlash on their way to greatness. And that the effects of policies such as the wars, economy and health care won't allow a final verdict for years.
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