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.

4 comments:

shifra said...

When I read the David Brooke's op-ed I actually wanted to call Marty Linsky to suggest he respond to the piece by pointing that Obama's ability to maintain such grace under pressure -- to get on the balcony while being baited by implications that he is at best a profligate spender and at worst a terrorist -- will stand him in good stead when he becomes President and has to alternate between playing a key role in leading the debate about America's future, while keeping perspective that will allow him to facilitate our ability to make tough choices. The very definition of adaptive leadership! I don't worry a bit about his ability to show emotion. What we need right now is a leader who can manage his emotion -- and those of a panicked population -- with wisdom and courage. And he has plenty of both. Shifra Bronznick

pkmarx said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
pkmarx said...

Can Obama can connect emotionally with the electorate to govern in troubled times? Is he too-coolly wired?” Can he draw on himself and will he “find anything to draw on at all?”

I wonder whether these questions are peculiar to the boomer generation – those of us stirred to life, passion-and-action by emotionally expressive men, many of them from the preacher’s pulpit, like Martin Luther King, Jessie Jackson, Andrew Young, and John Lewis.

Is that what we desire of Obama? Can we accept that he isn’t them?

Obama is different; he unequivocally tells us so: “I’m not a familiar type…It’s more, just that I’m different, in all kinds of ways. I’m different even for black people.” (NYT Magazine, October 19, 2008)

And, consider the possibility that he is holding steady to a monumentally important adaptive challenge. To quote today’s NYT Magazine: “From the start, Obama has aspired not simply to win but also to stand as a kind of generational break from the polarized era of the boomers, to become the first president in at least 20 years to claim anything more than the most fragile mandate for his agenda.”

Consider the possibility that passion is a poison of polarization and that cool-calm is an avatar for adaptive work – his challenge and ours…

Protective armor?

Once elected and governing, will he have anything to draw on? I surely hope so. Another way of asking the question is whether Obama’s cool-calm is protective armor masking something deeply flawed? I don’t see it, feel it, or think it – how would we know? Is it even a fair question to ask?

Patrick Marx
From the south shore of Ice Lake at the confluence of the Lost and Found Rivers in far northern Minnesota

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