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Yash Gupta
Business School Dean

Yash Gupta

Yash Gupta is Professor and Dean of The Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.

Obama and Fenty guilty of poor communication

Q: Although Washington D.C. residents give Mayor Adrian Fenty high marks for improving schools and other city services, he's fighting an uphill battle for reelection this week because he is seen as having ignored the traditional political process. Yet President Obama's popularity is also suffering precisely because his patient working of a broken Congressional process limited his accomplishments, diminished his stature and alienated his political base. How should leaders balance the often conflicting demands of achieving dramatic results and building consensus?

If the first rule of real estate is "Location, location, location," then the first rule of leadership must be "Communication, communication, communication." The problems of both President Obama and Mayor Fenty are traceable to poor communications after huge expectations were raised. I'd like to focus here, however, on President Obama, who has been a disappointment after inspiring so many people with his intelligence and eloquence during the 2008 campaign.

His term got off to a rough start, not because he tried to reach across the aisle to the opposing party but because he appeared to give up on the effort too soon. Meantime, he also should have been taking his arguments directly to the American public, who held him in such high regard during those first months and who still give him high ratings. Leaders are the ones who create consensus. That might sound like a contradictory phrase, but it's true; people will follow leaders who clearly explain the reasons why their proposals and programs address the public's needs and desires.

President Obama has not done a good job of this. Even as he has successfully pushed through reforms of the health care and financial industries, he hasn't adequately communicated why these are important actions and why they matter to the nation. Every president has to be part salesmen. Or at least part actor, like Ronald Reagan.

In addition, every president needs a dynamic and engaged cabinet to help him sell his programs, but the Obama team of advisers, especially the economic team, appear similarly to lack the ability to show they can empathize with the American people and offer them hope. For example, we know that Energy Secretary Chu has a Nobel Prize, but when do we ever hear much from him or see him talking about the crucial issue of energy? We just had one of the nation's worst environmental disasters in the BP oil spill, and yet the administration reacted slowly and failed to use that opportunity to show the public why we need a forward-looking energy policy that weans us off oil.

The president simply has to become more engaged with the American people. He needs to express an understanding of what they're going through as more and more jobs and homes are lost to the worst economic crisis in 70 years. I'd hate to see Barack Obama end up like another Democratic president of recent vintage, Jimmy Carter - both very smart men who came into office with a lot of goodwill, and who both lacked the essential quality of strong leadership: the ability to communicate.

By Yash Gupta

 |  September 14, 2010; 12:01 PM ET
Category:  A leader's team , Accomplishing Goals , Crisis leadership , Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Get ahead of the crowd | Next: Obama's challenge

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The problem IS communication. Health care is an excellent example.

The principal features of health care reform, including an end to preexisting condition restrictions, an end to lifetime limits on coverage, an end to dropping an insured when he gets sick and the right to include adult children in a parent's policy, all poll very well. Conservatives don't talk about that because it shows most Americans simply don't agree with them on these issues.

Conservatives' opposition to health care reform has been based on lies about death panels and government takeovers rather than on the real issues. But Obama and his team have failed to make Americans understand how the bill benefits them. That's partly a function of the fact that Obama was unwilling to take firm stands on individual features of the bill before it passed. It's partly a function of the fact that Congress dealt with these problems in a vast and complex bill rather than with a simple solution - like single payer - that anyone can understand. And it's partly a function of the fact that Democrats gave in to nonsensical ideas like "let's do health reform without increasing the deficit," which meant postponing many of the benefits of reform for years. All of these were huge mistakes that made it much more difficult to persuade Americans that this bill was in their interest - which it is.

Posted by: continental46@aol.com | September 14, 2010 5:21 PM
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I hate to break the bad news to any of you but Obama was not a failure. In two years, he has governed this country better than anyone since Lyndon Johnson. He actually got something passed through Congress. Okay, Gitmo didn't close but you call that a failure? He appointed two women (WOMEN !!) to the SCOTUS and save the economy from ruin. Those who say he failed for his policies would have said he failed even if he had parted the Red Sea. These folks are usually, one, extremists, or racists. It hurts them that black people aren't property anymore or second class citizens. Their low self esteem controls their lives. The liberals think he failed because they failed; that is liberalism. The world must be failing for it to exist. I think Obama has done pretty good under difficult circumstances. Are people mad at him? Sure. That is evidence that he has done good. He governed and made some hard choices for the best

Posted by: isometruman1 | September 14, 2010 5:13 PM
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sorry, no sale on Obama.

His message was delivered, and rejected by more than he or his supporters care to imagine.

Specifically, to rebut your article:

para #2 - I think they spent time blaming Bush, and "failed policies of the past". We heard it, and got tired of it.

para #3 - What I heard about healthcare, for example, was that costs will go down. Didn't seem reasonable, and now estimates are beginning to bear my view. I also heard about "jobs saved or created"... sounded hokey, made up. So I heard it.

para #4 - we heard first indifference, then got to witness incompetence.

para #5 - he is communicating volumes with his initial silence, and then his seemingly desperate ploys... oh, and Bush bashing and Republican bashing is back.

So he's been communicating just fine. The message is coming through loud and clear.

I think it is more accurate to say that his communications problem is about him following his own will, and by not listening to his subjects, er, I mean, constituents.

Posted by: MrLagg | September 14, 2010 3:06 PM
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Very weak analysis with too many cursory conclusions.

Posted by: whitaker200 | September 14, 2010 3:05 PM
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The underlying assumption of this article is incorrect. Barack Obama has not been a failure because "his patient working of a broken Congressional process limited his accomplishments, diminished his stature and alienated his political base."

He failed because he imposed nearly a trillion dollars in stimulus debt upon a citizenry who saw that as a foolish tactic, then bullied through a health care initiative that six in ten saw as unnecessary, expensive and counter-productive.

In short, it had nothing to do with communication. It had to do with attempting to impose a liberal ideology on a country that remains firmly right-of-center.

That is why all his talking only makes things worse for him. People hear him all too well.

Posted by: PigSkin | September 14, 2010 3:04 PM
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spot on.

dead spot on.

i was a big obama supporter, but its hard to really think this guy will get better- because his communication method is really sub par. pathetic in fact.

he seemed great in campaigns, communicating and all. but when hes in charge, where is the leadership?

nowhere. and the GOP is taking full advantage of it. id have to say, its not the economy in totality- its his inability to talk to the american people.

great article.

Posted by: ae-inc | September 14, 2010 1:10 PM
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