Fragility of political capital
Q: President Obama finally meets this week with BP chief Tony Hayward on the Gulf oil spill. From a leadership perspective, which man has been the less effective in his handling of the crisis? What should he have done differently?
It would be hard for anyone to be less effective than Tony Hayward has been. But I think the most interesting lessons to come out of the Gulf oil spill are for political leaders.
First, the last two months have underscored the fragility of political capital, and especially that initial public perceptions harden quickly, take on a life of their own, and are vastly more difficult to change than to set in the first place. President Obama's less-than-rapid response created a political disadvantage that required 10 times the energy and focus to overcome than would have been the case if he'd responded as aggressively at the outset as he is doing now. Why didn't he?
That leads to the second lesson. Obama's presidency won't be the first or last to be defined and potentially remembered not for its own agenda but for whether and how it responded to the unforeseen and unforeseeable. This is where presidents repeatedly fall down, and it is partly because of the paradox of disciplined and determined leadership.
Political leaders are typically successful when they stay relentlessly focused on their message. But that same relentless focus can block out other voices and other issues to which they should pay attention. As Obama has proven these past 60 days, it is the toughest balancing act there is.
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