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Keep it simple, Obama

There's a lot of criticism in the air lately about Obama's message strategy. Today, Politico talks to Howard Dean, James Carville and other Democratic bigwigs about what Obama should be saying. Karl Rove criticizes the President's "scattershot approach" to messaging in today's Wall Street Journal, jumping between tax cuts, the economy, and John Boehner. And after Obama waded in on the mosque controversy with muddled commentary a few weeks ago, communications strategists sounded off on the president, going so far as to warn of the danger of an "incoherent presidency."

Ever since Kelly Johnson told engineers at Lockheed's Skunk Works program during WWII to "Keep it simple, stupid," there have been few more basic lessons in leadership. Repeating a handful of simple, well-honed concepts--ad infinitum, if need be--is both Leadership and Communications 101. As David Morey, vice chairman of a communications firm that provided advice to Obama's 2008 campaign, told CNN: "Simpler is better, and rising above these issues and leading by controlling the dialogue is what the presidency is all about."

No matter what your politics, it's hard not to see that the President is fighting a losing battle to control his message. The fragmented, fractured media is, of course, partly to blame, as Obama finds himself playing whack-a-mole to every manufactured 24-hour news drama that erupts from someone's latest Twitter message or blog post. As I wrote last week, there are times when he has to respond to the latest controversy to pop up, and times when he doesn't.

But Obama's message problem is about more than just deciding when he does and doesn't need to pick up the mallet. The themes he crafts for his own speeches and campaign stops need to be simplified and winnowed down. I can't count the number of leaders and leadership experts I've spoken to over the years who say three is the magic number of separate goals or ideas people can easily focus on at the same time. Then, repeat them. Over and over and over again. And then again.

The American presidency, or any leadership position, for that matter, cannot become a talking points memo to be successful. Nuance and subtlety have a place, and there are times when leaders must react off-script. But getting people to rally behind simple themes is one of the foundations of good leadership. The only way to get a diverse group of people with their own self-interested goals--of which there is no better example than the current Congress or, even, the American people--is to guide them forward with a few simply worded thematic goals. Yes, it's the economy, stupid. But keep it simple, too.

By Jena McGregor

 |  September 17, 2010; 11:02 AM ET |  Category:  Bad leadership , Federal government leadership , Government leadership , Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Opps, forgot Wake up America,

He is a Liar,


Posted by: nobody2 | September 19, 2010 10:37 PM

It's hard to keep it simple when your are a liar

Posted by: nobody2 | September 19, 2010 10:30 PM

"...and there are times when leaders must react off-script."

Unfortunately the few times Obama has reacted off-script he's put his foot in his mouth. That's why his handlers try to keep him on-script with his little teleprompters.

I just read an article of an interview with a White House insider and the insider said among other things that Obama is lazy. Ya think?

Obama is a community organizer at heart and that's why he uses Alinsky's "rules" in his speeches. Blames everybody but himself for the mess he's made of our economy.

If passing the Health Care bill by an illegal reconciliation vote (it's only to be used for budgets) and bribing members of Congress to boot, is considered an accomplishment, then no wonder this country is filled with clueless people who voted for him.

And now they're in denial.

Wake Up America!

Posted by: janet8 | September 19, 2010 9:18 PM

There are men like Ronald Regan who become President and who knew how to correctly weld the power of their powerful position. Then there are Presidents like Obama and George W.Bush that were out of touch with the thinking of the majority of the American people, and they go way off course.The only solution is to remove them, and elect a better man.

Posted by: joe100821 | September 19, 2010 7:19 PM

His message is not the problem - his agenda is.

And Americans don't like it.

It's really pretty simple.

Posted by: thinker16 | September 19, 2010 4:55 PM

Obama just made a shout out to his racist base. Just imagine, honestly, if a white president pleaded with white pols to carry the day. Those "uppity" blacks are surging.

This is unacceptable race pandering.

But its the only game in town.

Posted by: VirginiaConservative | September 19, 2010 4:55 PM

Obama is no leader in any manner of speaking. When he was readied by his handlers to run for President, someone brought up the idea of the requirement for leadership. Obama thought they meant 'readership' and wrote another book. (or rather had another book ghost written')

Posted by: techresmgt | September 19, 2010 4:35 PM

I'm a democrat who is very disappointed in Obama's centrism. But I find it laughable that so many right-wingers claim he is an ineffective leader, especially following the ridiculous Bush leadership based on lies and fear. (This is of course just their political bias).

The facts (whether you agree with the outcome or not) show that Obama has had a very productive first 18 months, passing najor healthcare, financial, and other reforms. His style of leadership is clearly different from others (e.g., Bush's), but he has been more successful than most presidents. He has accomplished this in the face of inherited economic and military problems, a shameless republican obstructionism, and an idiotic, biased media as demonstrated in this column.

As for KISS, this is probably the worst advice. It's a real shame that our country consists of so many ignorant people who can't process anything beyond a sound bite.

Posted by: dougd1 | September 19, 2010 3:34 PM

@Pellinore posting at 12:56 PM -- No, I think YOU'RE "missing the point."

Among the things that stand out in regards to this type of column, are that the hyper-partisan WaPo staff -- "journalists" and "analysts" only in a Bizarro universe I'd rather not contemplate -- continue to feed advice to Obama and the other leftist Democrats.

Furthermore, what glares forth is that this piece is insinuating the amazingly hackneyed "Keep It Simple Stupid" as if it could be a "corrective adjustment" to a self-fixated, obstinately out-of-touch, pathologically mis-prioritizing, cozening, LYING, unqualified hack whose political packaging is now shown to have been completely deceptive.

Much of what the "right-wingers" have been saying about Obama from way back in 2008 is now shown to be pretty accurate and well-founded. And pretty much every promise made by Obama and the play-deaf self-serving "aristocrat" Dems is now shown to be pure lies and rhetoric.

K.I.S.S. cannot fix all that.

Posted by: finsher771 | September 19, 2010 2:07 PM

Obama told a black group to "guard the change" he was delivering. Of course, like most Americans, all they have left after his reckless spending is just a little change left in their pocket. Just keep the change.

This morning, the Obamas walked out of the White House and crossed the park to the nearby Episcopal church. He made his family endure a whole hour in church. It must be election time soon for such a sacrifice.

Posted by: alance | September 19, 2010 1:06 PM

GOP falsehoods "fuel the debate", when they are published in an unchallenged and uncorrected manor, for their sensational value to that outlet. ("reported earlier on Fox News"...)

But shortcutting journalistic standards - not vetting stories for factual validity first (...read, "WMD, Iraq!") - is not a free move.

Eventually the discerning public, which is some of it, downgrades your credibility.

We have reached a point where a few principals amongst the media, need to step up and initiate reversal. Persons more concerned with posterity than salary.

No Mas, to the blatant propaganda regurgitations. Someone needs to take a stand, as Cronkite did on Vietnam.

First they came for Acorn, then Sotomayor, Van Jones, New Black Panthers, Sherrod, mosques - and I said nothing...

- Balkingpoints / www

Posted by: RField7 | September 19, 2010 12:38 PM

Repeating a handful of simple, well-honed concepts--ad infinitum, if need be--is both Leadership and Communications 101


Simple minded advise from a simple minded columnist.

Posted by: twm1 | September 19, 2010 12:27 PM

Keep it simple (with or without the "stupid") is a motto I remember from from AA. Good advice for working a 12 step program as well as forming a foundation or talking to not very intelligent people, but that's about it.

Posted by: glenglish | September 19, 2010 12:24 PM

The White House is attempting to cling on to Democratic control of Washington by portraying an Ohio congressman, Boehner, who grew up in near poverty as an elitist country club Republican controlled by wealthy lobbyists. In a recent speech, Mr Obama mentioned Mr Boehner by name nine times. A fundraising email sent out from BarackObama.com this week stated that corporate interests and lobbyists “have put all their chips on one man: Congressman John Boehner”.
Yet Mr. Boehner's life story is the type of classic up-by-the-bootstraps tale of the American Dream that can put a tear in a voter's eye. As his story becomes better known, the Democrats could even be drawing favorable attention upon him. Right now, most Americans have never heard of Mr Boehner, and fewer still can pronounce his name, which rhymes with Rayner. The alleged elitist country club Republican is an Ohio Congressman who grew up in near poverty.

Posted by: nychap44 | September 19, 2010 11:29 AM

There are gonna be some really sad teabaggers in November. LOL.

Posted by: mlrice710 | September 19, 2010 11:11 AM

If the story about the nutcase (they would have to be) American soldiers killing Afgan civilians for sport turns out to be true, I'm waiting to see the posters blame Obama for the murders, that's the usual knee jerk reaction.

Posted by: Georgetowner1 | September 19, 2010 10:31 AM

Here's an idea for Mr Obama. 50 days from an election, go to Church with family , hold cute daughters hand. "Todies" in media will show image everywhere. Never mind that you just dropped the word "Creator" from the quote from the Declaration of Independence!

Posted by: pauldia | September 19, 2010 9:50 AM

Obama could not lead an alcoholic to a bar.

If anyone follows Obama's lead, it will be out of idle curiosity.

Posted by: JCM-51 | September 19, 2010 9:15 AM

President Obama has failed as a leader on the economy.

The job of a leader is to guide his followers through a course or problem to the solution. When you are President of a democracy, your job is to come up with the right solution, convince your followers, the countries citizenry, that your solution is the best one available and then implement the solution.

Obama is on the right course for the solution, a long-term plan that provides an immediate stimulus and a path to reduce our burdensome deficit over several years; however, he has failed to convince the citizens. They will not follow until they believe.

Read More: .... http://xrl.us/CanHeLead2

Posted by: banicki | September 19, 2010 9:05 AM

Obama can simplify this.
The Los Angeles City Controller said on Thursday the city's use of its share of the $800 billion federal stimulus fund has been disappointing.

The city received $111 million in stimulus under American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) approved by the Congress more than year ago.
"I'm disappointed that we've only created or retained 55 jobs after receiving $111 million," says Wendy Greuel, the city's controller, while releasing an audit report.

"With our local unemployment rate over 12% we need to do a better job cutting red tape and putting Angelenos back to work,” she added.

According to the report, the Los Angeles Department of Public Works generated only 45.46 jobs (the fraction of a job created or retained correlates to the number of actual hours of work) after receiving $70.65 million, while the target was 238 jobs.

Similarly, the city’s department of transportation, armed with a $40.8 million fund, created only 9 jobs in place of an expected 26 jobs.

The audit says the numbers were disappointing due to bureaucratic red tape, absence of competitive bidding for projects in private sectors, inappropriate tracking of stimulus money and a laxity in bringing out timely job reports.

Posted by: nychap44 | September 19, 2010 8:22 AM

In order for one to simplify they must first have the capacity to understand the complexities. Most CEO's understand the complex issues that arise and for those who do not wish to or have the intellectual capacity to get so involved they simplify the issue so the person with little time or ability get the point to be made.
Obama is not that smart.
He will never be able to simplify because he does not have common sense and does not care what the American people think because he thinks he is so much smarter and knows better. Well he is wrong across the board and it shows.

Posted by: nychap44 | September 19, 2010 8:03 AM

When Obama is in campaign mode, he is all fired up and an example is his speech to blacks and hispanics rallying them to his party's candidates. Referring to the Republican candidates as being the "other side" reminded me of when he was referred to as "that one" during the presidential campaign - not good.

When anyone caters and panders to a particular group, it makes me think twice about his/her program and policies when it comes to the entire citizenry.

Posted by: Utahreb | September 19, 2010 7:38 AM

There is nothing Obama can "say" which will change his record of leadership over the last 20 months. Leadership that a majority of Americans do not like.

We do not like his favoritism toward unions and public employees - helping them grow in numbers and lavishing them with disproportionate billions of the stimulus money at the expense of tax payers and the private sector.

We do not like his jarring abandonment of promises to usher in a new era of transparency and bipartisanship. Pelosi's "we'll find out what is in it after we pass it" just about says it all.

And we do not like his typical "community organizer" game of race and class politics. Post-racial leadership? It's a joke.

Posted by: Parker1227 | September 19, 2010 5:52 AM

For Obama, Leadership 101 would be too great a stretch. How in the world did this inept "community organizer" get elected into the most powerful position in the free world?

Posted by: JCM-51 | September 18, 2010 11:34 PM

Jenna: What office were you ever elected to? How the H would you know what it's like to preside over the Oval Office? It kills me that someone of your lofty position in the realm of American politics would even deem yourself willing to offer such great (irrelevant) advice.

Posted by: wturecki | September 18, 2010 10:57 PM

It's amazing how the people who could never even get elected have the most advice for those in office....GOOD POINT COMMENTER!!!
However, the TRUTH is not how amazing but how PATHETIC it is that our President is such a miserable failure in the leadership department, that ordinary citizens not only recognize it, they feel the need to communicate their feelings. Now THAT is what should amaze us. That we elected a child. Thanks a lot Iowa.

Posted by: kurttj2002 | September 18, 2010 10:08 AM

It's amazing how the people who could never even get elected have the most advice for those in office. For some reason they think they possess some secret ability to pinpoint problems and solutions, that those in office simply cannot see. If only the President and his team would listen to Howard Dean, James Carville, and Karl Rove. Talk about gigantic egos.

Posted by: 12345leavemealone | September 18, 2010 5:57 AM

Looks like they must be desperate for writers at the Post. Maybe I can get a job there so I wont have to quit drinking. BURP.

Posted by: jimbobkalina | September 18, 2010 4:15 AM

Besides my other objections to Mr. Obama being elected at this time, at this inexperienced point in his career....I always thought he spoke like a college professor. There's nothing wrong with sounding like a college professor....if you're a college professor. I don't think that's what the U.S. public has traditionally chosen in the role of president.

So I have always been surprised at the continuous praise for his "rhetorical gifts." He has a great announcer voice and timbre, but I never saw his style as presidential, in the plainspoken, folksy way that, like it or not, the American public usually finds attractive.

It's playing out now the way I thought would have been obvious all along - Mr. Obama's style of communication is more suited to the serene, ordered academic world than the feisty political arena. I can't understand why anyone is surprised.

Posted by: davidwatching | September 18, 2010 3:42 AM

What you propose works fine for a message people like to hear.
Works even better which people are neutral about.
But how can it work when people don't want to hear what he has to say?
How can they know?
Well, in18 months all of us know what his message will be, except for details. Keep repeating what people already heard? and heard? and heard? Sounds so contrived and mechanical.

Posted by: rimantas1 | September 17, 2010 10:49 PM

The column was correct, Obama gets in his own way over and over again. If he simply had someone to excise 70% of what he says a left only the essential elements he would be much more effective as a leader. Save the verbosity for your memoirs Mr. President.

Posted by: robert17 | September 17, 2010 9:54 PM


After reading a few of your posts, I can now say this with great certainty: you are really full of yourself.

Posted by: jcindy | September 17, 2010 8:28 PM

Obama has spoken a lot his agenda, but his speeches and comments have been poorly organized.

He is too often off-message. He doesn't focus on what he is expected to focus on.

Yes, this may be partly the fault of his audience. But, if his message isn't getting through, there's something wrong with the message, the delivery or both.

Part of the problem is a gradual loss of credibility - too many broken pledges or promises.

This is a delicate subject for discussion, and many will strongly disagree with it.

But, it's clearly a major factor in the runup to the Nov. elections.

Posted by: vrytix | September 17, 2010 8:21 PM

The world is complicated, the economy is complicated, politics is complicated. I'm tired of everyone wanting the message spoon-fed to them. If you are truly interested in the politics of this nation, take the time to do some investigating of the president's policies, listen to what he says, and then go do some more investigating.

If the solutions were simple, don't you think someone in the Obama administration would have pointed that out by now? Do you think he likes the situation he's in?

Posted by: s2car | September 17, 2010 4:02 PM

I think it was written well.

Posted by: spk202 | September 17, 2010 3:22 PM

That's was cute!

Posted by: be4fourty | September 17, 2010 1:51 PM

Thank you, fellow commentators, for completely missing the point of the article. What do you guys do, troll the internet to find things to be insulting about.

McGregor's point, I think, is that the KISS principle is broadly applicable to all leadership positions, and Obama is showing a lack of simplicity in his leadership. I agree, to a degree, with Illogicbuster: Obama is showing his lack of leadership skills, because he never had to demonstrate them before. For a community organizer or a political agitator (neither of them dirty words until recently), the ability to speak on any topic and sound intelligent is valuable. For a leader, pick your points, and your battles, and pound them into the ground. GW Bush did this quite well, whatever his other faults as a leader; Obama (and we) could learn something from his excellent message control.

Posted by: Pellinore | September 17, 2010 12:56 PM

who is this person and why does she keep typing this trite crap on the WaPo web site?

Posted by: zukermand | September 17, 2010 12:19 PM

Leadership 101? Umm, Obie is no leader nor is he an Executive. He's apolitical agitator that the Dems dressed up. That's why his party is being put in front of a firing squad by the majority of Americans.

Posted by: illogicbuster | September 17, 2010 12:18 PM

I think Obama does not want to lead. He just wants followers.

Posted by: cpameetingbook | September 17, 2010 12:17 PM

Keep it simple refers to Apple and Jobs, not the economy etc. your writing and thoughts are old, go back to school.

Posted by: over65havingfun | September 17, 2010 11:58 AM

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