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John Baldoni
Leadership author

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

Great vision, lousy execution

Q: Even before we know the outcome of the health care vote in the House, how would you rate President Obama's leadership on the issue?

President Obama's leadership on the health-care reform act leaves much to be desired. His handling of the issue, which he deemed as essential to his presidency, shows the hallmark of a former legislator learning belatedly that that as president he must lead on the issue.

Obama's first mistake was to allow Congress to write the health-care reform bill. As a presidential candidate who made health-care reform central to his campaign, it was his responsibility to write the bill and send it to Congress. By allowing Congress to write the first draft the Ppesident allowed ideologues on either side of the aisle to advocate for partisan aims instead of public needs.

To be fair when President Obama came to office economic issues prevailed. His administration continued the federal bailouts of the auto and financial industries begun under the Bush administration. Obama also shepherded passage of a nearly $800 billion stimulus bill, which his administration believes is a measure to save jobs. He also had to deal with the strategic management of two wars.

Meanwhile opponents of health-care reform had time to mount a vigorous campaign. Congressional representatives holding town hall meetings in their districts were met with vocal opposition to the notion of health care reform. Partisan phrases like "death panels" for the elderly and "government takeover of health care" helped to steer public discourse.

Surprisingly President Obama did not respond as an executive should; his administration remained relatively silent as grassroots efforts blossomed. During a town hall last summer when the president was asked by an older woman about the death panels, the president laughed it off. His response revealed that he was out of touch with the depth of the opposition to his plan. From summer 2009 onward, the administration has been losing support on the issue and fighting a wave of momentum against the bill.

Belatedly President Obama has seemed to catch a second wind. His most recent trip to Ohio, in which he cited the example of a working class woman who lost her health care because she couldn't afford the premiums and then was diagnosed with cancer, put a human face on the issue. The woman's story reminded people of why we need reform but sadly most people's minds and that of their legislators are already decided. Right now polls show that people are split nearly evenly on whether to reform or to maintain the status quo.

Executive leadership requires bold vision and swift execution. Obama's health-care vision is hopeful, but his execution is ragged. If Congress does pass health-care reform, the opposition is so strong that the bill's eventual implementation will be fraught with more partisan bickering. And when that occurs, it is the politicians who win and the people, especially those without health insurance, who lose. That is the price of unclear leadership from the top.

By John Baldoni

 |  March 18, 2010; 10:36 AM ET
Category:  Public policy Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I agree 100%. Remember, it was argued that President Obama had congress write the bill to correct the mistake of the Clinton administration on health care, which failed.

The only thing I would add is that his vision for health care wasn't large enough as I argued in my blog post in December. Covering 30 million uninsured Americans, reducing cost, and finding efficiencies is great but it doesn't mobilize a country. I asked my coworker about the health care debate. He was worried that with the proposed health care reform plan that the cost of his family insurance might actually go up. Creating a shared vision is something that brings all Americans to solve this problem.


I is only until recently where President Obama has been asking constituents to mobilize, which I have done my part to contact my congressman. I hope it is not too late.

Tim Duffy

Posted by: duffyleadership | March 19, 2010 2:08 PM
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