Saturday, August 13, 2011

Obama as Transformational Leader

A good friend of mine asked me how I define transformational leader and why I considered Obama to be such a leader. Here, more or less, is my reply:

Transformation - from the Cambridge dictionary:  a complete change in the appearance or character of something or someone, especially so that they are improved.

So as I see it, a transformational leader is one who has the capacity to effect, directly or indirectly, transformation.Profound change that makes things better. Affects interiors (culture, values, group psychology) and exteriors (systems, structures, process) of a definable group (GE, the auto industry, Wall Street, Main Street, the US, etc). Obviously a judgment call as to when change is fairly labeled as transformational. And, as always, people will disagree what is improvement, versus what change  makes things worse. As always, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Disagreeing with the quality of the result in most cases does not call the transformational naming into question. But "profound" or "complete" must be present.

What transformational changes do I credit Obama with:

1. Healthcare legislation - Like it or not, hard to argue that this legislation is not transformative. Pretty sure it will make it through the Supreme Court, and that it will weather Republican challenges. If Obama loses in 2012, it's toast. but better than even odds that it will make it through 2014 and the opening of the Exchanges. Many don't like the legislation, and feel it was crammed through on a partisan basis, that the public doesn't like it, and that it wasn't what the country needed. All good points, but not in question now. If the change is transformational, did Obama effect it? My answer is yes.

What did he do that others before him did not do? He established three key principles that he said needed to be present: near universal coverage; bend the medical care cost curve; and no more than $1 trillion investment that needed to be earned back in savings. He then stayed out of the trenches, to the frustration of many Dems. and to the horror of the hard left, when the public option was lost. There is some fascinating evidence from the biological sciences on how change occurs in highly complex and open systems: turns out a clearly articulated identity, if combined with open information exchange and effective relationships is what expedites and nurtures systemic change. Set the identity-determining principles, and step back. This is the very best way to herd cats. And, as the leader, only intervene when something starts to go south (in this case, the Scott Brown election, when Obama had to step in to bolster the troops). This doesn't mean that the leader is absent; he acts as space holder - constantly restating the principles, ensuring good communications, and promoting good relationships throughout the system, especially around the creative, chaotic margins.

Obama did this masterfully. Clinton did not. Nor did the other Presidents who gave healthcare a shot. This is not a leadership practice or approach that is easy to master. It takes vision, patience, fearlessness, trust, courage, resilience, and "my-house-is-built-on-a-rock-and-will-not-blow-down" sort of self confidence. Obama, I believe, has thee qualities, as do other leaders I consider transformative (Lincoln, FDR, Gandhi, King, Mandela).

2. Auto industry restructuring - Many objected to the way the secured creditors were treated in this deal, especially relative to the unions. Again, a completely legitimate question, but not at issue here. Was the change transformational? And if so, did Obama effect it? The answers to both questions, in my book, are Yes. Could the same results have been accomplished in regular chapter proceedings, with less bruising to bondholders? Perhaps, but it is not clear if anyone other than the government have could provided the DebtorInPossession financing, and if the government was going to do that, why not go all the way. Bold. Courageous. Timely. Very different skills than needed for the healthcare arena. There, the President had some, but not too much power and control. He needed Congress and outside groups. In the auto bailout, he held the cards and had the money. In this case, he effected the transformational change more directly.

3. Deficit/debt/debt ceiling discussions - Why do I have this on the list? The President got rolled by Republicans, and the result of the mess was an S&P credit downgrade and very upset markets. I put this on the list because I believe the President made a conscious choice to enter negotiations over raising the debt ceiling, thinking he could get a Grand Bargain, combining spending cuts, tax reforms and new revenues. Was he naive? Possibly. But I believe he still would have gone forward to negotiate, even if he knew he was going to lose. Why? He felt he needed to transform the conversation and put Democrats squarely in the path of embracing fiscal discipline. The people were afraid about the country's economic foundations. Democrats could no longer be "tax and spend", with Republicans owning the "cut and cap" terrain. They would lose big in 2012. Obama lost the battle; but he may well win the war. Republicans no longer own the fiscal discipline title. Dems want revenues as well as cuts, but no longer are we talking revenues/programs versus cuts. Obama moved way out ahead of his Party, a huge risk, as evidenced by his losing half the House in the final vote. But the Party stuck with him, and they now can claim co-ownership of the discipline domain. This is transformational precisely because he had a choice to shut down the conversation by threatening to use and then using the 14th Amendment. He chose the tougher road, and a transformation in his Party's mental and political positioning was the result.

4. War on Terror - This is one of the invisible transformations Obama has effected. It's sort of like the fish in the water: he/she has no idea that they are swimming in water; it's just how things are. What happened to the War on Terror? Where did it go? Why is no one much talking about it anymore? Why does this almost never come up in the Republican races that are beginning to heat up? Why do people feel less afraid now than they did before? Would Americans agree in any numbers with what McCain and Lieberman were saying not so long ago - that Islamic jihad is an  existential problem for the US that needs to be combatted through a global war on terror? I think not. This conversation has lost its bite. Why?

For a whole host of reasons. First, he changed the language. He simply stopped describing our military engagements as part of the war on terror. There was great hesitation to focus on Islamism, Islamic jihad, or Islamic terrorism in DOD or State communiques. Conservatives objected loudly, for a while. But most just gave it up. Nobody seemed to care very much anymore. Iraq was winding down. Afghanistan was surged up, and now will be wound down. "Victory' is off the table for Afghanistan as an objective, as it was earlier taken off the table for Iraq. In an extraordinary act of presidential leadership (Bob Gates says "It was the gutsiest call he has ever seen a President make."), Osama Bin Laden was killed. And going back to the beginning, Obama made a critical decision not to pursue any of the Bush team on the torture questions. Obama also backed down on Guantanamo and civilian trials, when it was clear he did not have the votes or the public support. So a lot of actions contributed to the changed awareness we see today. Worriers on the Right will say you don't fix a problem by pretending it doesn't exist. True. But if it really wasn't an existential problem to begin with, then the only way to bring balance is to step back a bit and simply change the terms of the conversation. Obama did this, and the effects are transformative.

5. International politics of engagement - Would the Arab Spring have happened in quite the same way if Bush had been President? Or Clinton? I don't think so, but obviously, this cannot be proved. Obama made his big speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, soon after his inauguration. The Right calls it the Great Apology. I call it an Invitation to Engage. He then proceeded to unwind from Iraq, and to step up in Afghanistan, but with obviously limited and time specific objectives. On January 4, 2011, Mohamed Bouazizi, a small Tunisian merchant, set himself on fire in protest against the government, and the Arab Spring began. I believe Obama's invitation to the Muslim world in Cairo, followed by the US stepping down in Iraq, and stepping up in Afghanistan, but with limited objectives, played a part in what happened. Whether this is right or not, it is very hard to argue that US policy since then has not adapted pretty well to the rapidly changing circumstances on the ground in the Middle East. We are not "home free" but we are neither resisting the changes to protect old autocrat allies, nor are we trying to force the change or run the revolution ourselves. We are letting a critical part of the world, in effect, go a bit wild mostly on its own. Scary. Amazing. Transformative. Would Bush or Clinton have done this? I am pretty sure the answer is No. I am still very much in the minority, but I believe the forces unleashed in the Arab Spring, in ways I can only guess at, will eventually lead to an Israel-Palestinian Peace Agreement, and a transformation in Iran. There's a long way to go, but I would bet on it. If this all were to happen, would it be fair to give the credit to Obama? Probably not. But by not interfering too much, and clearly indicating our support for freedom and dignity for the region's people, and not sending in our troops, Obama will have gone a long way to nurture the transformations underway.

That's all for now. More tomorrow.

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