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As part of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs, these fellows are engaged in a full-time, nine-month, graduate-level leadership training program that prepares individuals for public-affairs leadership.

Hope: Version 2.0?

Question: Like U.S. presidents, military and non-profit leaders often face the equivalent of "midterm elections" in which they and their strategies are subject to an initial market test or performance evaluation. What's the first thing President Obama, or any leader, should do or say when confronted with unambiguously negative results from a mid-course evaluation?

President Obama should not take personally the Republican midterm gains: there was little he could have done to prevent this. Historically the party occupying the Executive branch loses seats their first midterm elections. The economic downturn places a particularly great burden on Democrats. Fair or not, as the party in control of the Executive and Legislative branches, they will be held accountable for the state of the economy. And as no party could have revitalized the economy in two years, 2010 was the Democrats' year to lose.

Of course, this will make it much harder for the president to implement his agenda. It will slow or stall the passage of legislation, the confirmation of presidential appointees and other relevant government business. In order to break through potential legislative gridlock, the president will need to robustly negotiate with the Republican majority, and prepare to accept the half (or quarter) loaf.

Passing the healthcare reform bill added fuel to the Republican fire, and probably exacerbated Democratic losses. But what would have been the alternative? Ignore the glaring problems with the healthcare system to keep getting reelected? This might serve an elected official, but not his or her constituents. Great leaders know when to sacrifice the popularity of the moment for the greater good. Lyndon Johnson knew it when he signed Civil Rights legislation and lost the South for the Democratic Party. And Obama knew it with healthcare. Leaders have to think beyond the next election to the next generation. Within the albeit greater constraints of a Republican Congress, Obama should strive to achieve as progressive policy gains as possible. If that costs him the election in 2012, at least he had one great term--instead of two bad ones. --Max Nardini

In his compendium What the Dog Saw, journalist and culture-watcher Malcolm Gladwell describes the nature of first impressions. He cites details of a research project in which separate groups of respondents were asked to judge the effectiveness of teachers based by two metrics; a brief, seconds-long image of the teacher in the classroom and a video of the same teacher's entire lesson. The respondents' assessments of the teachers' effectiveness were the same across both research groups--meaning the participants were as able to comprehend the good and bad teachers' "classroom vernacular" through a momentary flash of an image as they were through the totality of their lesson.

Gladwell's notion of first impressions has everything to do with the way President Obama should present himself in the immediate aftermath or afterglow of the election results. At the very least, he will be forced to adapt his agenda to an electorate keen to see him finally deliver on the promises of his campaign; at the worst, Obama's next two years will be lean legislative years of stalemate and stagnation. Obama's first impression will be everything; the setting of the speech, who is present for the announcement, what he is wearing, whether he's cool or courageous and a host of other factors will set the tone for how the American people and the international audience perceives him moving forward. Whether or not the Republican Party wins the House or takes a chunk of the Senate, Obama's first moments on screen will be as important as the content of his speech. I choose to address here what that tableau should look like, rather than the content of the speech itself. Hopefully these suggestions will be 'generalizable' to other leaders.

This speech should be the first snippet of communication broadcast from the White House, delivered on Wednesday, Nov. 3, ideally in the evening during primetime television and simulcast on social media hubs, news web sites and mobile devices. This is Obama's time to show emotion--rather than the collected, measured president, citizens need their commanding commander-in-chief. He should eschew the expected setting of the Oval Office and opt for the East Room, or (this is a leap) take the speech to a Midwestern manufacturing center. There he could deliver a resounding message, cuffs unbuttoned, sans tie. He should be poised but emotional, firm yet open to new ideas and perhaps a shift in his rhetoric, not with the measured pace of his soaring oratory but with the voice of a man on a mission. Around him, senators and congresspeople from across the aisle--a return to the bipartisan moment he promised. This is not bowing to the Tea Party's values and the extremism that has plagued the nation during his tenure as its leader. It would be Hope Version 2.0, in which his community-organizing prowess will inform and adjust policies toward job creation, stabilizing the economy and ending the war in Afghanistan. This tableau must send a clear message that the rhetoric can and will adapt to the time. Viewers should be able to click, surf or download this speech and know immediately who Obama is and what he now stands for. His administration depends on it. --Matthew Spector

Receiving unambiguously negative results requires a reassessment of organizational strategy in light of mission, resources and environmental constraints. For President Obama, the relevant mission document to consider is his 52-page, campaign-issued Blueprint for Change.

In terms of environmental constraints, the Obama administration should analyze exit polls and the altered political landscape, and deduce data-based conclusions. If Republicans take the House, increase their Senate presence and move into a few Governors' mansions, the tone and scope of President Obama's agenda will have to account for those political shifts.

Finally, the administration should conduct an inventory of its current resources, particularly human resources. Turnover--or rumors of turnover--orbit around everything from the president's chief of staff to the Office of Management and Budget and senior national security staff. Any midterm-induced correction at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave that conducts a two-year forecast of risks, domestic and foreign policy options, and messaging strategies must begin and end with human resources. For instance, President Obama cannot combat climate change and unemployment through a green jobs strategy due to the absence of Van Jones. That policy concern may still be present, but is not likely to be actualized without personnel who can intelligently implement the policy.

Mission. Environmental Constraints. Resources. How might the Obama administration relate these three to one another in light of corrective feedback (i.e. voters kick out Democrats across the country)? Presuming the president still stands by his campaign platform, he should attempt to accomplish as much of it as possible, given its current resources and environmental constraints. The midterm elections, essentially, are a referendum on how the president has pursued his agenda, not what agenda he pursued. That referendum, I suspect, will take place in November 2012. --Andrew Wilkes

Negative feedback, though not always constructive, many times is a catalyst for change to happen. Midterm feedback is critical for any leader because it is the point where trust can be strengthened, regained or lost. The first thing a leader should do when negative feedback is received is pick out the top three issues that the people are concerned about that can be resolved in the minimal amount of time, then make sure they are resolved. This will help them maintain their positive relationship with the people. Within their plan, the leader needs to create a framework and action plan to present to the people following up with them on progress along the way. In the meantime, while simpler problems are being taken care of, the leader should be simultaneously working on resolving or correcting a longer term issue.

At this point President Obama needs to address the nation and regain trust from them. Most people have lost sight of what he has accomplished on a less visible level because larger issues are often addressed with no visible results. Within his attempt to regain the support from the people, he has to recognize their frustrations and then actually take steps to alleviate the fears that are being taken advantage of by his opponents. In short, he may need to start another campaign to rekindle hope within the nation. --Imani Farley

The first thing any leader like President Obama should do is what Obama has already done: reach out to the other side. It is only when we really try to understand the opposition that we can find avenues for compromise and ways to move forward. At the core of it, we're all people. Much of what we can get done depends on the relationships we develop. Obama reached out to Republicans in both the House and the Senate during his push for the healthcare bill. Although not all of those engagements were successful, his prior efforts will make it easier to reach out to Republicans if they come out on top after the elections.

I think politicians on Capitol Hill, or on any hill, know that it is extremely difficult to get things done without working with members from the other party. It's a give-and-take relationship that usually manifests itself in ways ranging from heated debates to more passive-aggressive maneuvers and behind-the-scenes negotiations. But each party realizes that if it wants to move its initiatives forward, it will eventually have to give something up and let the other dog have its day. --Farhan Banani

After receiving negative results from midterm elections, President Obama should initially own up for the responsibility on behalf of his administration--and even the Democratic Party--for failing to deliver to the American public what the majority of people expected. In particular, President Obama must continue to personally acknowledge that all of his presidential campaign's promises have not been fully completed: his administration has made progress on some and has made no progress on others.

It is essential that President Obama does not shy away from taking ownership for the so-called failure of his administration, just as an effective leader of an organization credits the members of his team when a success occurs. President Obama has properly acknowledged that his idealism and lofty policy goals, for instance universal and affordable health care as well as cap-and-trade solutions to global warming, went awry because he failed to judge the depth of the ideological split within Congress. Yet, Obama should not get caught up in making excuses why a lack of bipartisanship (or even an inherited economic and international diplomacy mess) contributed to a lack of germination. After the results of midterm elections, no matter how disappointing to Obama and his administration, the president must implement a new plan of action and make some serious game changes to his leadership approach. President Obama could benefit from referring to President Clinton's final two years of his first term, in which Clinton overcame the perceived public stigma of being overreaching and ideologically left leaning to be viewed as more aligned to the political center and reconnected with the opposition, thus enabling Clinton to regain his momentum and successfully maintain/push his agenda. Above all, President Obama must continue to not only act as the commander-in-chief, but also embrace the role of the captain-of-the-challenges in order to rally his team and the public together to defeat the negative midterm results. --Christian Laurence

By Coro Fellows

 |  November 3, 2010; 2:26 PM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Crisis leadership , Government leadership , Leadership personalities , Leadership weaknesses , Making mistakes , Political leadership , Politics , Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: How to take feedback | Next: On being a 'net negative'


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It seems the discussion has returned to President Obama and how he will be re-elected... So I will say this... Be rational...

President Obama is a spectacularly skilled man, but unreasonably expecting him to accomplish such a complex undertaking without giving him the appropriate amount of time necessary to fix things, and attempting to deny him the complete support system which anyone in his position would need (and which was there for those who helped to cause this negative situation in the first place), is just silly...

the turn around of a country as large and deeply globally integrated as the United States of America in just two years?
come now... let's just put aside the childishness for this moment in time and realize what your ACTUALLY ATTEMPTING TO EXPECT

And since the course that took us in this seemingly negative socio-economic/idealogical direction began far far before him. I think someone out there is being unfair in their expectations...

Looking at history ...other individuals where allotted MORE time to do far LESS...

So I will end by saying this... give him what he needs to be more fully the leader we elected, wait until he fully establishes his course... and then judge the effect of his leadership... but don't distract the man by pre-maturely judging his leadership ability... its really best for us if we just let him focus... because honestly he need not deal with anything that will distract him from the huge undertaking that he already has in front of him.

And if, in-fact, you feel that despite the factors I listed above he is still accountable to the level of scrutiny and the pressure he is receiving, then we best simultaneously stop with all of that "racial non-adequacy in positions of governance" business... because you really really really really really really really have faith in his ability... BECAUSE ANYONE who can accomplish the task set before him, and do it while fulfilling all of the unreasonable expectations of those making up the expectations, must obviously be one of the greatest American Presidents of All Time??????

I'm not an expert...

Posted by: TheRookAndQueen | November 17, 2010 10:02 AM
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The first thing that President Obama should do is get Valerie Jarrett out of his left ear and Nancy Pelosi out of his right ear. Or is it the other way around?

Posted by: bobbo2 | November 7, 2010 9:27 AM
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A lot of this advice is akin to what one would expect on a forum for players of a single player computer game. The reality of the situation Obama finds himself in is a good deal more stark. He's alienated his customer base, both those who support the general trends of his initiatives as well as those who were skeptical or hostile to it and are now energized to actively oppose it.

The reality is that Obama cannot do anything without winning back some of those customers. He can choose to focus his efforts on those who generally support his initiatives and try to win re-election with a rear guard attritional strategy, or he can attempt to win back a majority or working plurality by adapting his policies to appeal to a broader slice of the electorate. The latter seems more likely to succeed, as Obama's political skills do not seem as keen as his charisma.

For either approach to work Obama must focus like a laser on improving his execution. His inability to execute has contributed mightily to the loss of the confidence Americans had in him when he was elected. Even those completely aligned with him politically will fail to support him if he cannot give at least the appearance of capability.

Posted by: robert17 | November 3, 2010 11:46 PM
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