Obama’s Second Chance: Fulfilling the Untapped Potential
Originally appeared on Forbes.
This article is by Peter Sims, author of Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, coauthor with Bill George of True North, and founder of the BLKSHP.
The first time that I believed Barack Obama wanted to be president of the United States was in September 2006, when I saw an interview from Men’s Vogue in which the junior senator from Illinois was asked about his future ambitions, including speculation that he might run for president in 2008.
“My attitude about something like the presidency,” he said, “is that you don’t just want to be president. You want to change the country. You want to make a unique contribution. You want to be a great president.” As the 2008 campaign took shape, he and his team developed an innovative organization and outreach approach that allowed him to become the David who beat Goliath and led many to believe he would be that kind of transformational leader.
But in his first term, he failed to follow though on that promise.
With the punishing and close campaign for his second term now behind him, the president has weathered a brutal first term and many personal and leadership crucibles, and seems to be emerging on the other side of those dark valleys having rediscovered his authentic voice. This transformation is yet to be fully manifested, of course, but in thanking his campaign staff on the night of his re-election, he revealed once again his humanism and the depth of his commitment to the call to public service, dating back to his years as a community organizer working with the disempowered people in Chicago. The Obama who spoke to his staff that night sounded like the Obama who said to Chicago Sun-Times columnist Cathleen Falsani in a 2004 interview :
One of the interesting things about being in public life is there are constantly these pressures being placed on you from different sides. . . . The biggest challenge, I think, is always maintaining your moral compass. Those are the conversations I’m having internally. I’m measuring my actions against that inner voice that for me at least is audible, is active, it tells me where I think I’m on track and where I think I’m off track. . . .
The most powerful political moments for me come when I feel like my actions are aligned with a certain truth. I can feel it. When I’m talking to a group and I’m saying something truthful, I can feel a power that comes out of those statements that is different than when I’m just being glib or clever.
Obama will become a transformational leader by continuing to connect in that way with the values and vision for the future that are important to him personally—the reasons he chose to help disadvantaged and disempowered people as a community organizer rather than taking a lucrative corporate job. That call to service is the life blood of his authenticity and what drew to him such broad and deeply impassioned support in the 2008 campaign. As John W. Gardner, the founder of Common Cause and the White House Fellows program and secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the Johnson administration once said, “The world loves talent but pays off in character,” and character remains the fundamental basis for Barack Obama’s potential to be a leader of Lincolnesque proportions.
Yet character alone will not be enough. In this intensely partisan era, in which we are facing so many intensely complex challenges—ranging from global warming to pension and tax reform to the necessity of deleveraging debt burdens at the government, organization, and personal level—the country desperately needs renewal and reinvention, not only of our physical infrastructure, but also of our social infrastructure and our systems of governing. Tax reform is an obvious example, one that every serious observer and participant in American business and politics agrees must be addressed. As during the transformational presidencies of the past, those of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Reagan, the American people today crave the right message of healing, empowerment, and progress, and the leadership to follow through on that message.
That type of leadership cannot and will not come from the top down in Washington or the Northeast corridor. It must come from the bottom up, and any type of bottom-up innovation must begin with the leadership having an understanding of underlying and quite often unarticulated citizen needs and desires. Every major progressive social change movement in U.S. history, from abolitionism to women’s voting rights to civil rights to gay rights, began with small groups of American citizens, thinkers, writers, and grassroots leaders determined to realize social change. Great presidents merely do their best to influence those directions, or, more realistically, to align their own authentic goals with the larger cultural trends.
Ronald Reagan may have said and done all the right things to help shift Southern blue to red on the electoral map, but that transformation began decades earlier when Lyndon Johnson extended the hand of presidential affirmation toward Martin Luther King, Jr., in support of the Civil Rights Act. As longtime presidential adviser David Gergen has often argued, one of Reagan’s great advantages in preparation for becoming president was to have crisscrossed the country for years as a TV spokesman for General Electric during the 1950s and 1960s, meeting more than 250,000 American citizens. In Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligence” terminology, Gergen describes Reagan’s signature gift as interpersonal skill. He knew the American people extremely well and was able to align himself and his story with the public sentiment to craft the right message for the times.
If President Obama can capture and connect with the public’s urgent desire today for creative problem solving, crafting the right vision, message, and, most important, approach to governing, he will have his shot at greatness. But in order to do so, and to lead in a truly transformational way, he and his team must create a much different culture in the White House during the second administration—one that is more outward facing than inward facing, one that treats the White House as a platform for amplifying and collaborating with the public, with companies, causes, and groups across sectors—in order to govern from both the top down and also the bottom up. All the major drivers of influence, from the media to publishing and thought leadership channels to academia and to popular culture, are no longer managed and driven by a small handful of gatekeepers and opinion leaders. Social media technologies have democratized and distributed influence and power, so that we’re all now part of various tribes—our extended families, our workplace and school networks, and our “friend” circles. The democratization and distribution of power means both that no president is likely to be able to harness the kind of widespread public support needed to tackle today’s “wicked problems” if he doesn’t listen to those tribes and work with them in developing solutions. In order to be a transformational leader, President Obama must tap into the wisdom of the crowd. He must make the White House a platform for convening and building ecosystems for solving problems in new ways. This new style of governing is urgent because of both the nature of the problems we face and the deeply divided nature of the country.
The presidential campaign felt like a modern day Civil War. It displayed the worst of the country’s ideological extremism—racial bigotry, religious intolerance, and competing libertarian versus communitarian economic worldviews. It also highlighted the insidious role of money in the political system. Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum argue persuasively in their 2011 book That Used to Be Us that money has corrupted America’s political parties and institutions to the point of near moral bankruptcy.
It is a very sad statement about the political system that someone must pay anywhere from $2,000 to $38,500 to meet the president, or any elected leader, for that matter. Given the short-term incentives to cater to donors’ desires, our politicians are increasingly required to spend disproportionate amounts of their time raising money rather than working on problem solving. This has made the government much too reactive. Poll-tested and cynical incrementalism has replaced visionary leadership. Virtually no one—from my Uncle Joe, who’s a truck driver, to John Huntsman, Sr., the highly respected executive and wealthy philanthropist who helped bankroll his son’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2011 but told The New York Times in October 2011 that the political system is broken—no one feels represented or heard anymore.
You don’t need to read Tom Friedman to understand the core problem. My Uncle Joe reads the local newspaper at best and says it better than Friedman could: “We’ve forgotten who is the boss in this country. The citizens are the boss!”
Meanwhile, the problems we’re facing are ever more difficult. We’re a nation beleaguered by war yet still rightfully fearful of very real threats and instabilities abroad. The Army has faced a comeuppance in the Middle East, where the arrogant and ignorant strategies of politicized generals, most notably Tommy Franks, gave way to the realities on the ground. Ret. Col. Casey Haskins, the former director of military instruction at West Point, after serving as the chief of strategic plans for Multi-National Force—Iraq, puts it, “Not only can we not teach doctrinally approved solutions any more [which take roughly two years to be approved], the truth is, we don’t even know all the problems!”
Reforming Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, confronting global warming honestly, and reforming the tax system are urgent priorities that got virtually no attention in the presidential campaign, save small tidbits in the presidential debates.
On top of that we face extreme levels of inequality not seen since the Gilded Age, and many workers just don’t have the skills needed to compete in today’s hypercompetitive globalized economy.
These are the types of problems that no president, even with the best senior team and staff in the world, can solve alone. That’s why it’s so important that President Obama now correct for the errors in his first term and come through with the innovative, open, engaged, and progressive style of governing he initially promised.
In 2008 the electorate flocked to Obama largely because of his message that he would govern in a new way, and because his campaign team did in fact create a new kind of campaign built on a larger base of supporters and smaller contributions, and so on. But then, for a variety of good reasons and some unknown ones, the president abandoned that approach as soon as he took office. He and his closest advisers failed to stay connected with supporters, even the most ardent ones, their potential champions, education partners, and eyes and ears on the ground all around the country. Around this time in 2008, someone in the transition team decided not to shift the campaign’s new media team, even though it could have kept it in place as a not-for-profit in order to maintain the network of grassroots support and two-way communication, which it had managed to do so effectively during the campaign. Instead most of that group was turned over to the Democratic National Committee, with a few members led by Macon Phillips taking jobs in the White House. That was a mistake.
Yes, of course the transition team had to focus on managing the worst economic crisis in recent history. Time was of the essence. But time is always of the essence for high-performing organizations, and that doesn’t mean that the solution set of policy options could not have been expanded. Greater engagement with the business community would only have enhanced the stature of and external support for the economic team. Instead, the team suffered from a style that resembled “the smartest guy in the room” syndrome, a common failing of insecure CEOs and managers who are often driven by a culture of fear and arrogance rather than a culture of inclusiveness, authenticity, and empowerment. They bought into a false tradeoff between the need to deal with the crisis and the power of engaging people to develop a longer-term strategy for governing differently; those should not have been mutually exclusive options. That insular style of economic management and policy making was the greatest leadership failing of the President’s first term.
Obama had at his disposal an army of extremely talented, respected, and influential people who were eager to be involved in his historic administration, whether formally or informally; they were just waiting to be asked, and to be led. I saw this first-hand. I was one of 15 members of the Business Leaders for Obama team, a group chaired by Gary Gensler, who went onto become the chairman of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and which included Julius Genachowski, who would head the Federal Communications Commission, Alec Ross, now senior adviser for innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and private equity investors including Steve Rattner, Robert Altman, and Mark Gallogly.
We were tasked during the campaign with leading outreach to the business community, gathering endorsements, and providing policy position feedback. I was asked because of my experience as a management writer as coauthor of True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, with Bill George, former chief executive of Medtronic and now a professor of management at Harvard Business School, as well as my previous work in venture capital with Summit Partners.
After the election, because I had come to know so many people who went on to jobs on the transition team in mid to late November 2008, I had a number of conversations with members of the team encouraging them about how the administration might be able to leverage the grassroots elements of the campaign into a different way of governing. The driving question was: How do we stay truly connected with all of these citizens around the country to create feedback and educational and campaign mechanisms, in order to govern differently? Why, for instance, didn’t impassioned retired teachers in Napa, California, who had been such great local champions during the campaign, continue to play a role? One person I spoke with about this on several occasions was Joe Rospars, who had led the Obama ’08 new media team and thought it was a good idea.
But in a short time that army of foot soldiers, from those retired teachers to the Silicon Valley coalition of green energy leaders for Obama and the several hundred CEOs who had offered the president their personal endorsements, lost their connection to the Obama team, and as a result lost their sense of connection to the larger cause we had believed in, as well as our feeling of empowerment and shared purpose.
If I were to list the names and titles of people who discussed with me their common dismay at this turn of events, it would read like a Who’s Who of Silicon Valley and the power networks of the Northeast corridor.
The good news is that now Obama has a second chance. If there’s one thing the president has surely learned in his first term, it is that he cannot do it all on his own. The president and his team have a tailwind of victory behind them now like the one they came into office with, and they have a window of time to get a team in place to engage with these broader champions and networks and to reconnect to larger causes that are so vital to this constituency, ranging from the desire to help reinvent the economy and job creation programs to education reform and bridging the skills gap and addressing urgent environmental concerns. And the good news is that the president’s senior advisers seem interested in making this change. White House Chief Technology Officer Todd Park has, for example, been on a roadshow of sorts all fall, going around the country with Steve Case and a band of chief executives, technologists, and opinion leaders sharing sketches for new ways of leading, yet also, more important, listening.
Obama is also well suited for the new more open governing style. Fortunately, the president’s greatest assets in taking advantage of the possibilities of this networked and transparent world are the same things that brought him such impassioned support in 2008: his integrity, character, and authenticity and also his desire to be innovative. If there’s one thing that Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert, and the army of supporters he needs to rally can smell out quickly, it is a lack of authenticity. Just ask Mitt Romney. And there’s nothing more powerful in an open and transparent world than authenticity.
The biggest question now is whether the president and his team can truly listen. I’m not talking about analyzing reams of polling data. They’re clearly very good at that. I’m talking about being able to act like an anthropologist, to get what Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus who is both an economics professor and a leading social entrepreneur, calls getting out of the office to get “the worm’s eye view” about social problems that are new and complex before using an experimental and entrepreneurial approach to solving them. The president can learn more about what’s really going on in the country by watching The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and by monitoring trends on Twitter and Facebook every night before he goes to bed, than he can by listening to a small circle of advisers who couldn’t possibly cover as much ground.
The great news is that the administration can lock arms in collaboration with a sea of social ventures, led by social entrepreneurs who are united around common values and purpose. The American people from Detroit to Louisville to the rural areas of Northern California have been reinventing and renewing all through the punishment of the financial crisis. The artists, entrepreneurs, and inventors so core to America’s promise and founding ideals are resilient and inspired. What America needs from its president is to be acknowledged and affirmed for reinventing their own lives, companies, and communities. The solution to America’s ills lies not in the swamp of Washington but in the fields, startups, and small businesses, classrooms, and social entrepreneurs of America.
Obama must listen to and engage with people like Judith Jackson, who leads Youthville Detroit. A deeply humble and authentic leader, Jackson would be the last person to toot her own horn, yet she serves more than 500 Detroit youths a day in a variety of after-school and creative education programs. And if you ask Judith about what she needs, the topic of funding inevitably comes up soon. Raising money is a big part of her job. With the decline of earmarks, Jackson must build out her own ecosystem of supporters and funders, including nice gifts from the likes of singer-songwriter Usher’s foundation. The White House could help Jackson enormously merely by shining a light on stories such as hers, and show how Jackson’s story shares much in common with that of the students at Oral Roberts University who are deeply passionate about using social entrepreneurship to achieve social justice ends, including to combat meth addictions in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Because we don’t even know the problems, let alone all the solutions for reinventing and renewing America, everyone must be a social entrepreneur. Programs like Fuse Corps, Code for America, and StartUp America are helping to provide the catalysts and energy to focus on entrepreneurial approaches to big problems from the bottom up, including by helping to build the all important ecosystems that support and maintain innovation. That bottom-up approach to change must begin with a deep awareness and empathy for citizens’ problems and needs, something that all too often gets lost in top down decision-making processes.
Those 35 and under in America are extremely entrepreneurial. They have to be—they must invent and reinvent their careers multiple times in just their first few years out of college, and all while managing to repay educational debts. They are well schooled in the prerequisites for invention—tinkering, play, rapid iteration, and resilience through failure.
What America needs now is a Renaissance of creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship. President Obama may just be able to ignite that flourishing if he makes a sincere effort to tap into the spirit of American community and collaboration that I’ve seen all around the country. He can lead Americans of all races, religions, and persuasions, from students at Oral Roberts University to urban artists and musicians from the other side of the tracks in Detroit, in locking arms and marching together in a shared desire to solve our pressing problems in new and creative ways.
This revolution will be improvised.
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