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Obama's post-election tightrope walk

If you were listening closely to Obama's press conference on Wednesday--that somber affair in which the president had to answer to, in his words, the Democrats' "shellacking" on election day--you would have heard the president say no fewer than six times that he "takes responsibility" for the amount of pent-up frustration over the economy that voters expressed.

He included himself in the problem, not only taking responsibility but acknowledging that the world's economic challenges "require all of us--including me--to work harder at building consensus." He admitted mistakes, noting that "we were in such a hurry to get things done that we didn't change how things got done." And when asked how he felt about the outcome, he said he "feels bad," but not for himself, turning the attention instead to his supporters. "The toughest thing over the last couple of days," Obama said, "is seeing really terrific public servants not have the opportunity to serve anymore, at least in the short term."

In many ways, the president sounded all the right leadership notes during the conciliatory speech he gave following his party's, as former President George W. Bush would have said, "thumping." Except one, some are arguing. He wasn't contrite enough. He "still thinks he knows best." He's in denial. Critics seem to be calling for him to backpedal or express sincere remorse for what he did.

Whether or not you agree with Obama's policies--and clearly, there are many who don't--imagine the president had done just that. Say he stepped up to the podium on Wednesday and said, "About that healthcare plan? I was wrong. Clearly the American people didn't like it." He would have been just as roundly criticized--more so, actually--for flip-flopping on his ideas. When NBC's Savannah Guthrie asked the president, "Is it possible voters can conclude you're still not getting it?" imagine he'd said, "Why yes, I'm clearly out of touch." What is it exactly that they want him to say?

Obama is walking a high-wire tightrope. On the one hand, he needs to be willing to compromise, course correct and even renegotiate some of what he's already achieved. But on the other, he has to continue to stand by what he believes, and not bow so much to pressure that he ends up abandoning his ideals. After all, Obama did campaign on many, though not all, of the policies he worked on during his first two years in office.

Good leaders are adaptable but principled--not rigid or compliant. Striking the right and exceedingly tricky balance between compromise and his own beliefs will be Obama's most difficult job over the next two years. If he does that well, he may have a shot at reelection. Either way, he'll have to take responsibility for that, too.

By Jena McGregor

 |  November 4, 2010; 9:55 AM ET |  Category:  Change management , Crisis leadership , Federal government leadership , Government leadership , Personal Leadership Journey , Presidential leadership , Public leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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