A major overhaul of our health care system. Financial regulation. Economic stimulus. The environment. Two wars. Lots of people say President Obama is trying to tackle too many problems at once. Some critics say he ignores the legacy of past presidents who maintained a more steady focus.
Ronald Reagan, for example, devoted his first year in office almost solely to his tax-cut plan and related measures, while Cold War diplomacy and other issues were placed on the back burner. Even billionaire investment guru Warren Buffett, an Obama supporter, has said that “[you] can’t expect people to unite behind you if you’re trying to jam a whole bunch of things down their throat.”
But there’s another point of view. (Isn’t there always?) Obama supporters say that the economic crisis presents a rare opportunity for accomplishing major (needed) changes in the government and politics. “We don’t have the luxury of choosing between getting our economy moving now and rebuilding it over the long term,” the president has said.
Well, who’s right?
According to Adam M. Grant, management professor of the Wharton School of Business, “leaders can get around [the short attention span of the populace] by developing a broad, unifying concept,” and then showing how each part of their program fits that well-understood goal.
In other words, bold action is good, but you’ve got to link it to an overarching theme that people can understand and embrace, in order to avoid the perception that you’re shooting from the hip and struggling with forces beyond your control.
Obama himself has cited two former presidents as role models for leadership: Lincoln, who forged ahead with the transcontinental railroad even as the Civil War raged on, and FDR, who tried to end the Depression while addressing everything from the need for electricity in the heartland (establishing the Tennessee Valley Authority) to the security of senior citizens (setting up Social Security).
Has Obama fallen short of these leaders? Some say he has, due to the lack of a clear, overriding vision – caused in some measure by his desire for bipartisanship and for allowing Congress to take control of the nitty gritty of policymaking, particularly on healthcare.
The President needs to do more to show how issues like healthcare, the economy and the environment are interrelated, and how such programs stem from broader values that he shares with the American public. He also needs to provide concrete examples of how his vision will affect people in their lives. Like Reagan, he should tell more stories that are easy to understand, to make his case.
While Obama can and should use surrogate experts to help explain specific programs and why they’re important, he must remain front and center as communicator-in-chief, explaining to a nervous citizenry that there’s a plan people can relate to. His easy manner, sense of competence and calm, as well as the pragmatic way he tries to get things done, have given people confidence before – and there’s no reason why it won’t work again.
Obama also must remind people, as he did during the campaign, that he’s a normal dad and husband who’s able to laugh at himself. That’s another critical feature in building trust, especially when ugly political forces are attacking him for his “otherness” to generate fear. He may be president, but he’s still one of us. Even the patrician Roosevelt was able to pull that off, to great advantage, during our last huge economic crisis.