Thursday, January 28, 2010

Obama and Leadership

Where do I stand on the Obama Presidency?

I stand at about the same place I did last year at this time.

President Obama has put too many projects into his “top priority” list. After a year in office with not a whole lot to point to, he still insists that he will stay the course and continue to pursue the things he has been pursuing.

My experience in leadership cautions me that a leader cannot have too many top priorities. This is true if things are running pretty smoothly and it is especially true if one is in a turnaround situation.

To me, Obama’s job was to execute the turnaround of a pretty sick patient!

Leadership is to bring focus to a situation, identifying what is immediately important and what can be put off for awhile. Leadership is about communicating this focus to others so that they know what they are to concentrate on and they can get on board with the leader. Then the leader needs to bring sufficient resources to bear on the problem so that the goals and objectives of the organization can be met.

There will be diversions along the way. That is just the way the world is. Because the leader knows that she or he will face these other, unknown bumps along the road, having a disciplined agenda will allow the leader to take care of these “diversions” while still pursuing the major goals and objectives.

President Obama put too many projects on his “top priority” list. He did not focus. He had the “Audacity of Hope” driving him on. And, while that may be very appealing and good speech material, everything would have had to go “just right” for the president to achieve all the goals he set for himself.

Someone once was elected to office by focusing on the claim, “It’s the economy, stupid!”

But, this tunnel vision never seemed to be a part of the Obama persona.

Looking back one year, however, it is easy for us to now say, “It was the economy, stupid!”

Last year at this time we were tottering on the brink of another “Great Depression.” There was a lot of fear in the country. America’s biggest banks were on the edge, the economy was in the tank, and unemployment was growing. Foreclosures were rising as were bankruptcies. And, most of the rest of the world was in at least as bad shape as was the United States.

The Obama administration, along with Congress, produced a stimulus plan. There was the interjection of the government into the auto industry and one or two other efforts to head off problems. The Federal Reserve pursued “quantitative easing” keeping its target interest rate around zero.

Things did get better. Analysts are claiming that the “Great Recession” ended somewhere in the second half of 2009. But, unemployment still remains high. Foreclosures and bankruptcies are still taking place at near record rates. There remain over 550 banks on the problem bank list of the FDIC. And, the economy seems lethargic. Our consumer advocate, Elizabeth Warren, is raising concerns over the demise of the middle class. There is the criticism that the focus of the recovery was on Wall Street and not Main Street. Some prominent economists, Stiglitz, Krugman, and Roubini, are worried about a double-dip in the economy.

News about the President’s efforts on the economy were quickly displaced by trips around the world, about health care reform, about global warming, about energy policy and a myriad of other initiatives.

Of particular concern here was the Obama health care effort. I will just make three points here. First, President Obama turned the development of the legislation over to the Reid/Pelosi leadership in the Congress to craft the bill. Obama disappeared. Questions about where the president stood or what he was for received vague, disconnected answers because he was not leading the charge.

The story I heard for this tactic was that the health care bill presented by President Clinton failed because it was crafted in the White House and did not include sufficient Congressional participation in the process. Obama was not going to make this mistake. President Clinton, of course, denies this reason for the failure of the 1993 effort at health care reform.

Second, the emphasis that was placed on obtaining 60 votes in the Senate to pass the legislation put several self-seeking Senators in the driver’s seat. (Who says ‘moral bankruptcy’ is just centered in the Wall Street banks?) Rather than focusing on the health care bill itself, the nation was appalled by the behavior of a few of America’s elite holding everyone else hostage in order to get their special interests taken care of.

Third, the size of the effort was overwhelming. All people heard was universal coverage, coverage of pre-existing conditions, public option, and so forth and so on. The picture that came through to ordinary people was “huge plan” must be connected with “huge cost.” This was the way the government worked. All the efforts and machinations of the politicians to build a plan that would not cost the American people “one dime” just did not resonate with the public. Universal efforts were expensive and always cost more than expected. And, this would just add to the huge deficits predicted for the next ten years or so.

And, this was going on while the president spoke, always eloquently, about his other concerns.

Then, there was Iran, and Iraq, and Afghanistan, and the Christmas terrorist bomber, and Massachusetts (and Virginia and New Jersey) and other detours.

The consequence? Confusion, uncertainty, frustration, anger, you name it, on the part of the people. What are the priorities? Where does the president stand? What does the president want us to do? What are the rules? Who is in charge, Congress or the President? What is important?

And, the economy? I don’t know when I have seen a situation in which such uncertainty exists. First, the big banks are helped. (Yesterday we heard that the crucial thing was that the economy did not collapse, not how much money Goldman or the French or whoever got.) Then the big banks became the big bad guys. Now we need to re-regulate them. But, how are they going to be regulated? What about foreclosures? Can anything be done about them? And, then the small- and medium-sized banks aren’t lending. How can we get credit flowing again? And, so on and so on.

People and businesses can’t follow if they don’t know where their leaders are heading, what their main priorities are. People and businesses can’t plan if they don’t know what the rules and regulations are going to be. People and businesses can’t commit if they are plagued with uncertainty.

The State of the Union address last evening did not resolve any of these issues for me or lessen my concerns. To me the issue is leadership and the respect for a leader is earned. This is a question of the rubber hitting the road and no speech, no matter how eloquent it might be is going to change this fact. I am still waiting for the focus of intention and the focus of effort.

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