Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Leadership and Experiments

In David Sanger's News Analysis in the NYT on Saturday, an anonymous person, described by Sanger as "a member of the Obama foreign policy team" was quoted as saying "there's going to be no time for experimentation."

Wrong, both on the substance and on the mindset.

In both foreign policy and the domestic economy, the country is facing new challenges. Iraq is not Afghanistan. Iran is not North Korea. This economic turndown is not like the recession of the 1980s or the Great Depression of the 1930s. Obama and his team can learn from the mistakes that were made in all those prior situations, but fighting the last war, literally and figuratively, is a profound mistake. Each of these challenges is new. The current repertoire is not adequate to the task. Anyone who thinks they know the solution ought to be barred from the meetings. This country needs to run a series of experiments, such as engaging with the enemies abroad, putting more pressure on Israel to give their politicians the courage to do what they should have been doing long ago, and trying a whole bunch of ideas to deal with the most intractable problems at home, education as well as the economy, carefully monitoring them, making mid-course corrections when needed, or abandoning them wholesale when they appear to be going awry.

The series of bailout initiatives are a case-in-point. If Paulson and Bernanke look they do not know what they are doing, it is because they do not know what they are doing. They have never been here before. All we can ask of them is that they make their best guess at the moment, run experiments, and see how they go. That's what they have been doing and the strongest argument for Geithner at Treasury is that he is a smart guy who does not seem flustered by having to change the strategy again and again until he gets it right. Similarly, Clinton at State is a good idea precisely because she has very little experience making foreign policy and has the potential to create a formidable team with the President. She's a risk worth taking, because the upside could be so high.

We forget that half of FDR's New Deal experiments were utter failures. So he kept coming up with new ones, tinkering at the margins or making big U-turns until itseemed to be working.

The danger is that the policymakers will succumb to the public pressure, exacerbated by the media, to pretend that they know the right path. Rather, what they should be doing, is helping us to adjust to the reality that they don't have the foggiest idea what will work, but that they will keep trying, and learning, and applying that learning until they get it right.

Larry Summers had it as reported in the in the Wall Street Journal that fixing the economy was as much an emotional issues as a policy issue.

As a consequence, policymakers have to help us adapt to the new realities: there are no quick fixes; some people will take losses, especially in the short run; and that the government will be running experiments, some of which will fail, but that the people in charge will keep trying until they get it right.

Playing the blame game will not do anyone any good. What is needed is a spirit of experimentation, the thrill of adventure, going out into uncharted waters, knowing that there will be bumps along the way. The policymakers need support, tolerance, and a long view. The best members of the Obama team will be those folks who are willing to take some risks, try out measures that have not been proven in the past, and be open to think of failed experiments as learning opportunities and not marginalization opportunities.

That, President-elect Obama, is the change we need.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Memo to Obama: Beware of Technical Expertise

This is a critical time for Barak Obama. He has no more important task than picking personnel. Leslie Wexner, who founded The Limited, says that one of the hardest lessons he learned was that the central job of a CEO is being the CPO, the Chief Personnel Officer. Obasma will be tempted to choose people who know too much, technical experts who have distinguished themselves with their deep knowledge in, say, economics or foreign affairs. But what the world, and Obama, needs in these unusual times, is not technical expertise, which can be rented or purchased or borrowed anytime in the marketplace, but people of judgment and character who have the capacity to adapt to new, unforeseen circumstances.

Take the Treasury Department, for example. As I looked at the photo in the New York Times of that cast of characters Obama had assembled to discuss the economy, most of whom were pretty clearly Treasury Secretary wannabes, I was struck by how narrow a slice of the world they represented and how narrow a slice of the world's knowledge base or experience as well. "Experts" tend to have a point of view, and if they have a point of view they are invested in that point of view, leading them to misread the situation, ignore counter-data, and stick with their game plan long after it is clear it is not working. What should be most important to Obama about Larry Summers, for example, is not his unquestioned brilliance, but his failed Harvard presidency, when he was unable to stop putting his foot in his mouth and unable to rally the community to his vision for the University. The difference between government and academia, is that in government if the relevant community will not go accept the idea then the idea it is useless, but in academia the idea is always useful fodder for another journal article that few people will ever read.

What Obama needs at Treasury and State is someone with Summers' quality of mind, but with a willingness to experiment and an openness to change, Obama's mantra, that has been demonstrated under challenging and changing circumstances, like Google's Eric Schmidt or US Senator Chuck Hagel.

Oh, and one other quality that is important. Obama needs people who believe in politics, not who disdain it. When I was doing personnel for the Governor of Massachusetts, we recruited and hired a lot of people from the business world. The ones who were obsessed with taking the politics out of government and substituting "good business practices" often blew themselves up with in a year. The ones who were excited by the challenge of mastering politics so that they could have an impact were often significant contributors for a long, long time.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Obama is already delivering losses

My favorite definition of leadership, the one I am really addicted to, is that leadership is disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb. One of Obama's most attractive traits is that he has the capacity to stand back and see what is happening while he is in the midst of the action. He appears to be able to reflect in real time, unlike many people in public life who are so caught up in their public personae that they find it difficult to reflect at all, never mind while the action is still going on. So he understands and has acknowledged that he will not, can not, meet the multiple and grandiose expectations that we have placed on him. The process of "disappointing his own people" has already begun. I was on the phone yesterday with a colleague from Dubai, a Palestinian who teaches in and runs executive programs at the Dubai School of Government. He said that the headlines in every newspaper in the Gulf were about the fact that the father of Rahm Emmanuel, Obama's While House chief-of-staff to be, is an Israeli citizen. So much, they were saying, for an evenhanded US Middle East policy. Right or wrong, and my guess is that they are wrong and that my worried Zionist friends have reason for concern, they were expressing their disappointment with Obama based on their expectations, whether or not Obama himself had colluded in their fantasies. This is just a taste of what is to come. There will be disappointments delivered in other staff appointments and Cabinet positions, people and factions who will be denied what they think is their due. And there will be policy disappointments as well, as events, both in the economy and internationally will interrupt the pre-election plans for the post-election period. But in both of these realms, the hyperbolic expectations also provide Obama an opportunity for leadership. Because people all over the world as well as his supporters in the US are so invested in his success, he will have a window to try some experiments in the first six months or year or so that would not be available to most politicians. For him, the challenge will be how to use that precious political capital he has accumulated, but will start to atrophy if he does not expend it. He will need to choose wisely, and never to assume that because he is President and that so many people want him to succeed, that anything really important will be easy. Clinton made both mistakes, choosing unwisely and then not doing the necessary work. Instead of taking a smart risk smartly, he took a stupid risk stupidly when he used his political capital, such as it was given that he was elected with less than 50% of the vote, on gays in the military, an important issue to be sure, but not one that should have tackled first when the nation was facing a need for deep change in health care, education and welfare. By making that his first big initiative, and losing it because he never did the hard work of laying the foundation for it, he blew the opportunity to make real progress on his next initiative, health care. Hope that Obama takes his early risks on something at the top of his priority list and that he does so knowing that no important change will be easy to effect.

Friday, November 7, 2008

When McCain Lost His Soul

Not that anyone cares, but it might be good to remember back in the summer when this campaign for the Presidency was a lot closer than it seemed on November 1. Pundits attribute McCain's sizable defeat to the swooning economy, but I think his downfall started back in late August, right before the convention, when the maverick in McCain gave way to the dark forces of win-at-all-costs. The McCain who showed up on election night with a gracious and moving concession speech, the one who followed Mitt Romney's pandering to the troubled automobile workers in Michigan by telling them the hard truth that those jobs were not going to return, the one who challenged his party's leadership on a whole bunch of important policy issues, the one who called for the surge when the situation in Iraq looked hopeless and public opinion was turning sharply against the war...that John McCain disappeared when he let himself be convinced to choose Sarah Palin rather than the person he wanted to run with, Joseph Lieberman. I have no brief for Lieberman and don't want to get into an argument about Palin, but the choice was much more than who was going to be the nominee for vice president. It was about whether John McCain was willing to risk losing by running his campaign the way he wanted to run it, or he was going to let the hard core Republican operatives try to do FOR him what they did TO him in 2000 in South Carolina. I have been there. I recognize that feeling. Is it better to lose feeling good about the campaign you ran, or try to win with a campaign that makes you feel like you haven't showered in a month? Are you willing to take the chance of doing it "my way" as the old Sinatra theme song goes? McCain made his choice and ended up with the worst of all possible worlds: losing and running a tawdry campaign that will forever tarnish a reputation for independence and honor that he spent a lifetime nurturing. Too bad. But it is a real leadership lesson that goes way beyond politics. That's the real test: can you be true to your own story about yourself, regardless of what others think? Can you act on behalf of purpose rather than expediency when there are real risks in doing so and huge stakes? If he had stood up to those apparachicks like he did his captors in North Vietnam, who knows.....

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Leadership and Passion

Much has been made of Barak Obama's coolness under fire, his capacity for staying calm when attacked, rising above the fray, distancing himself, what we call Getting on the Balcony.

Anyone who has watched the debates has seen that quality. David Brooks' op-ed piece in the Times yesterday was particularly insightful in pointing this out.

I have always thought that it was impossible to get elected President without making an emotional connection with people (see Dukakis, Michael; Kerry, John; Mondale, Walter). Obama is proving to be the exception.

Of course, if the Democrats were to blow this election they ought to pack their bags and try some other country. Hard to imagine a situation where they would have more externalities working in their favor. They could have nominated any of those folks who they paraded before us during the primary season and it would have been theirs to lose. And that was before the economy tanked.

To some extent, as a young, attractive, oratorically-gifted African-American (Remember Joe Biden's early comments about Obama being the kind of African-American who could get elected? He was right, of course, even though he was not in a position to say it. And now look where he is!), all Obama has to do is show up to generate an emotional response. But watching him, you do get the sense that he is somehow wired to stay cool. That ear-to-ear grin he displayed during McCain's roast at the Al Smith dinner was a campaign first for him.

If he can elected without displaying emotion, can he govern that way? Or, better still, can he exercise leadership, deliver bad news, ask for and get support for short term sacrifice, without touching our hearts?

I spent a few years working for Bill Weld, when he was Governor of Massachusetts. Weld, like Obama, is a cerebral fellow, supremely confident of his above-the-neck abilities. He, like Obama, took office during a difficult economic time, though on a much smaller scale than Obama will face. His lack of emotion was, on the whole, a huge asset to him as he cleaned up the financial mess the post-Presidential candidacy Dukakis Administration had left for him. He was able to make tough decisions without letting his feelings, or his ideology, get in the way. And, most important, he never took personally the intense criticism he received. He was able to brush it off as going with the territory. That's all on the plus side.

Weld was fortunate in that he never had to mobilize broad segments of people to make any sacrifice, to do anything difficult. He was able to forge behind the scenes agreements with the President of the State Senate and the Speaker of the Massachusetts House to get the legislation he needed.

Obama's dispassionate demeanor will stand him in good stead when he has to make a tough call and take heat for it. But as the first vote on the bailout showed, getting legislation through the Congress will require more than a good relationship with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reed. Obama will have to go over their heads and energize the public to put pressure on the Congress if he is going to get the country out of this economic mess and restore the nation's standing in the community of nations.

Barak Obama will have enormous political capital in his first few months in office. But, as Bill Clinton discovered, the post-election euphoria will quickly fade. In order to govern in difficult times, Obama will have to draw on a part of himself which, if it exists, has been kept under wraps for the entire campaign. It is an open question whether, if and when he tries to go there, he will find anything to draw on at all.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Leadership in a Crisis

In a crisis, what we WANT from people who are running the show is just two things. Be present and feel our pain. George W. Bush is not particularly good at either, but he has been better at it in the economic current crisis than he was after Katrina or 9/11. Rudy Giuliani is the master. Nothing he likes better than to be present and to feel our pain and 9/11 gave him a chance to salvage his reputation by playing to his strengths. He pandered to us in every way, telling us to go back and have fun and the government would go catch the bad guys without any sacrifices at home. Giuliani accumulated enormous political capital during the period right after 9/11, but instead of spending a little of it to stimulate a conversation in this country about what we had to do differently because the world had changed, he tried to spend it by quashing an investigation of why New York City was not better prepared, by extending his term as Mayor beyond that statutory limits, and by writing a book called....Leadership. Ugh. But what we WANT from a Big Foot in a crisis is different than what we NEED. Leadership is about delivering to people what they need, not what they want. It is about challenging your own constituency. A crisis is an opportunity for leadership, for taking steps that are needed but would not be tolerated without the anxiety and fear that the crisis stimulates. So it was good to see the colorless Gordon Brown, who no one would want to have a beer with, recognized that a crisis was an opportunity and led the world in taking steps that were beyond the imagination of our White House. In announcing his bank plan and his idea of convening the world's financial chiefs Brown said that "This is not a time for conventional thinking or outdated dogma but for fresh and innovative intervention that gets to the heart of the problem" and called for "global action". The reality, of course, is that he doesn't know what will work any better than Paulson and Bernacke and my financial advisor do. Brown's just guessing, trying an experiment. But at least he has been willing to try something that was way outside the standard repertoire. And the idea that the folks who let us collude with them to get into this mess can be relied on to get us out of it is foolish. But we were foolish before, when we took out the mortgages we could not afford, ran up credit card debt we could not pay off, and, in my case, kept much too much of our nest egg in equities. So we have little choice but to be foolish again, and keep our fingers crossed that one of their guesses will staunch the hemmoraging.

Sunday, October 5, 2008


Why is it that the networks insist on partisan commentators spinning their analysis to suit their perspective? To the credit of the networks, they usually identify the party affiliation and activity of the Ed Rollins and Paul Belaga types. But are we supposed to believe them, or just reinforce our own biases? Maybe it is because there's no one out there who hasn't got an axe to grind. I cannot figure out whether it is better to have a Donna Brazile or Bill Bennett because we know who they are really for or a David Gergen, who has been willing to work for anyone who pays him. The post-VP debate blather was almost insufferable, and coming from a total political junkie like me that is saying something. Based on Palin's performance, Rollins just about made her the front runner for the GOP nomination in 2012, while Belaga painted her as giving people more reason to vote for the Obama-Biden ticket. Yadayadayada. But the Palin factor is still alive and well. The rants against her from liberal women and especially liberal pundits (see Dowd, Hebert , and Collins in the Times,just to take the most obvious examples) keep coming. As best as I can tell, she drives my coastal liberal friends bananas because she challenges them opn three fronts: class, ideology, and sexuality. Isn't Palin just what the women's movement is about? Creating a world in which woman of all types and packaging can play on the biggest stages? Isn't there room for a low brow, sexual, conservative woman trailblazer? Won't that really help their cause?

Friday, October 3, 2008

Scapegoating and the Bailout Blame Game

Palin's repeated references last night to "Wall Street greed and corruption" was just the latest in a string of diversionary finger-pointing and blaming. Gwen Ifill (who never should have been moderating the debate anyway because of the book she is writing which will be much more successful if Obama wins than if McCain should prevail, no matter how hard her defenders like David Hauslaib try to spin it away) colluded by asking the VP nominees who was to blame, but she's no different than many of her colleagues in the media who enjoy focusing on who to punish rather than what is wrong and what to do about it. Much more fun. Scapegoating is a classic work avoidance mechanism, a way of helping a group of people turn away from their own responsibility and accountability by pointing to someone else as the source of their discomfort. Hope you read Bethany McLean's courageous piece on the op-ed page of today's Times. Finally, someone, unsurprisingly not someone from political press or a politician, has put some responsibility on all of us, we who, after all, were the enablers for those Wall Street fat cats. They made off with their millions, but that was because we kept running up our credit card and mortgage debt, way beyond what we could afford if the house of cards ever started to fall. It is not government or Wall Street that has to change. Look in the mirror, folks. There's the culprit.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Obama and the race vote.....

Big conversation topic these days among my liberal friends is about what "those people" will do when they get into the privacy of the voting booth and no one else will know if they cannot vote for an African-American for President. I became a Republican in college because I thought my liberal Democratic friends were the least tolerant people I had ever met. They had no confidence in the voters. They thought they knew better what was good for people than the people knew for themselves and if only they and their kin were in charge, the world would be ok. So now they worry that the "hidden racist vote", not surfaced in the polls, will elect John McCain. I beg to differ. I have felt for over a year now that Barak Obama will win going away, ten points at least, 55-45 in the popular vote. People want to feel good about themselves when they leave the voting booth, and people will not want to feel as if they stood in the way of telling the world that this country was willing to elect an African-American to the Presidency. Those liberals who worry about the hidden racist vote would be better worrying about their own self-righteousness. The not-trusting-voters syndrome was at play on both the left and the right in the bailout vote fiasco yesterday. Those naysayers were unwilling either to stand up to uninformed and understandably anxious popular opinion, nor were they willing to try to educate their constituents. So they took the easy route and voted no. Safe and,I hope, sorry, they will be.

Monday, September 29, 2008

What a Day for Leadership!

So, in the roll call vote 2/3 of the Republicans and 40% of the Democrats took the no-risk route and voted their politics today. So, predictably, Obama and McCain blamed each other and each other's party. Leadership is risky; that's why there's so little of it, including from either of them. They played it as safe as they could. If either Obama or McCain saw this as a defining moment for their candidacies, or for their character, one in which we could tell if they had any political courage, if they would really put the broader interest ahead of their own narrow political interest, he could lock this election up. Memo to Barak and John: Go to DC, make phone calls, use your political capital and the possibility that you will be in the White House come January to cajole, pressure, harangue and do whatever else is necessary to pick up those handful of votes. No one knows if the bill will work. All we know is that the best minds that could be put together think it is their collective best guess. That's all it is. Just a guess. Not a solution. Just an experiment. But at the moment that we are looking to see what is inside each of them, neither John McCain nor Barak Obama has been willing take the risk this close to the Holy Grail of the Presidency, putting themselves on the line for the bill that might well would lose them votes and not prove a winning position on November 4. But that is par for the course. In the foreign policy debate last week, both steered away from anything that could blow up on them - like a nuanced view of the Middle East - and cited differences only where they were sure that those differences would accrue to their benefit. And there have been big issues all along that they have both ducked because they did not see them as wedge issues. The abandonment of New Orleans after Katrina is a national disgrace. It is a huge opportunity to show that we really do care about each other. And saving Social Security is too hot to handle. that's an opportunity to show that we really care about our kids and their kids. I have much more confidence in the American voters than either John McCain or Barak Obama seem to exhibit in their campaigns, with their distorting ads and their running away from the tough issues. How much worse does it have to get before they are willing to put it on the line?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

On Being Irrelevant.....

It is personally painful to watch the Republicans in the House of Representatives trying so hard to make themselves players in the bailout saga. When you are in the legislative minority, without the procedural power to throw sand in the gears that their counterparts in the Senate enjoy, and your Party controls the Executive Branch, you are virtually irrelevant to the business of legislating. Years ago, I spent three terms in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in that situation. Yuck. There are only two roles open to House Republican Leader John Boehner and his hardy band of 199 Republicans: stay in the good graces of the White House by being a dutiful water boy – which is what he has done most of the time – or he can be a distracting pain in the ass, like a fly buzzing around your head that doesn’t bite, making it more difficult for the Democratic legislative majority and the White House to get the work done by threatening to withhold the fig leaf of bipartisanship. So Paulson and company have thrown the fig leaf to Boehner, adding a provision to the plan which gives the Government authority to do some of the insurance financing that permits the House Republicans to say that they added a "non-socialist" possibility. As the Times reported this morning, that gives Boehner enough to go to the Members who easy targets, those who are not running for re-election or have easy races and cobbling together enough votes so that McCain can say that his work bore fruit. Pretty sad. But if helps to get an agreement to do SOMETHING, that would be a plus. It will not quiet the right. Like William O. Perkins III, those capitalists will figure out the game, find a way to make their money off of whatever is finally enacted, and still complain that the country is gonig down the tubes.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Bailing Out

So, it is debate night. One thing to watch for if you are looking for leadership: does either John McCaion or Barak Obama say anything, just one thing, that sounds like there is something he believes in for which he would be willing to risk losing votes from his own supporters? Leadership is about taking risks for something you believe in. Let's watch and see. My favorite definition of leadership is "disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb". Heres Tom Friedman's version of that, published in his column last Sunday in the New York Times: "My test is simple: Which guy can tell people what they don’t want to hear — especially his own base.". Read the whole column.
So what might leadership look like on the bailout? Here's one idea: do the Democrats have the political courage to pass a plan they believe in, in cooperation with the White House, even if the House Republicans are opposed and trying to use the issue to help McCain? That appears to be the choice they have, if you believe today's latest reports from CNN.
Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Obama, McCain, Bailout and Real Leadership

Keep your fingers crossed that McCain and Obama stay as far away from the US Senate as possible as the bailout is negotiated over the next few days. Whatever their intentions, all they can do is poison the well by intruding Presidential politics into the mix. A smidgeon of leadership on their part would be resisting the temptation to use the economic troubles as a campaign boost. Stay on the hustings, and continue the pandering, please. And there's Bill Clinton, praising John McCain, continuing to do whatever he can just this side of indecency to make sure that Obama is not occupying the White House in 2012, when Hillary will rise again. Check out the NY1 piece: http://www.ny1.com/content/top_stories/Default.aspx?ArID=86269. Then again, for real leadership, think about the folks I spent the day with today: 11 principles of charter schools in New York City. They put their careers on the line by taking those anti-establishment jobs in the first place. Their political support is fragile, depending on unholy alliances between the likes of libertarian Repubicans and black Democrats, the former who like the values imbedded in charter schools and the latter who care more about the next generation of African-American than they do about teachers' unions and the national Democratic leadership. These principals understand that leadership is an experimental art. And they are trying lots of different experiments, some of which challenge their own consensus-based non-authoritarian values, in order to see what works. They have success and failure. But unlike most of the rest of us, they are out there, on the cutting edge, doing whatever they can to salvage young lives who the system has failed.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Leadership on the economy? Candidates? Fahgeddaboutit...

Ok. We are in free fall. Everyone I know that "knows" anything says it is going to get worse before it gets better, but no one, no one, knows what to do now. Don't look to McCain or Obama. They are in the business of getting elected not demonstrating leadership. Getting elected is the purest form of pandering in a democratic society. Here's what it looks like: finding scapegoats, like McCain suggesting Christopher Cox should be fired or blaming Wall Street executives; delivering good news that people want to hear rather than bad news that they need to hear, like Obama telling those folks who took out mortgages they couldn't afford that they should be bailed out, too. Watch them closely in the Senate. See if either of them is willing to do anything that is good for the country that will risk even one vote that they think they need to win....