Book Review: The Promise: President Obama

Jonathan Alter in The Promise: President Obama, Year One uses his self-described “unique access” to the President and the White House to write a “behind the scenes” account of President Obama’s first year in office. In doing so, he provides a look at the major players as they tackled historic challenges and insights into the personality, character, and decision-making strategy of the new President.

Early in book, Alter writes, “[Obama’s] first task was triage.”

Before assuming the presidency, Obama’s year one agenda was aggressively focused on tackling both long-term problems and a bevy of short-term calamities confronting the country. Thus, the lofty ideas delivered with soaring oratory throughout the 2008 campaign had to be largely abandoned in the face of domestic and foreign troubles.

Alter primarily focuses on Obama’s decision making processes. He gives us a nuanced view of President Obama’s management style and his methodical approach to policy making. Alter discovers that Obama favors “logic chains” and “decision trees,” all of which stand in direct opposition to President Bush’s decision making style.

Alter notes that the Obama team exerted serious amounts of political capital pushing legislation tied to the Bush presidency such as the stimulus package. While the passage of these bills were critical to the survival of the economy, Obama nary received any credit. Instead he was often branded a “socialist” by right wing pundits. The failure of the Obama team to get in front of the media coverage on the stimulus package deal and later health care reform are examples’ of Obama’s failure to effectively deploy political capital.

Politically competent leaders craft a compelling agenda. The strongest agendas all share something in common: they raise awareness of key challenges and they lay out a straightforward approach to achieving results. Obama’s ability to craft a narrative to raise awareness was his critical strength during the presidential campaign but it quickly became a liability when he hit the road to promote critical legislative issues during his first year.

Successful pragmatic leaders know how to blend political and managerial competence. At this juncture President Obama has shown remarkable managerial competence in his first year in office. What has eluded him thus far is the political competence necessary for political success in this hyper factionalized partisan legislature.

Alter’s work penetrates beyond the superficial arguments on cable news shout-fests and goes deeper than the media’s coverage of Washington personalities. The Promise underscores how much political and policy contradictions have defined the president’s early tenure.

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BLG Leadership Insights

Visionaries, The Nobel Peace Prize and Jerusalem

obama peaceAs some of you know I’ve been conducting a leadership workshop in Jerusalem for the past few days. Teaching in the old city of Jerusalem with the village of Swilan as a backdrop, in the shadow of religion, politics, ideology, and mischief puts my training sessions in a humbling context That said, my workshops revolve around the theme of leadership and the act of getting things done. Specifically looking at leaders, good or bad, that have the capacity to get results.

In this context, I was thrown through a loop when a student yesterday raised the question of Obama’s recent Nobel Price win. He asked, “If leadership is about getting things done, then why did Obama get the award?”

BLG Leadership Insights

Do we really need a Czar when a Duke will do?

Why is it every time that the president assigns a special urgent and unique project–the assignment is never to a director, administrator, not even to a chief of staff, always to a ruler, or more specifically, to a czar.  The very notion of calling someone a “czar” speaks to a strange type of insecurity, both historically and dramaturgically.  It may denote majestic expertise, autocratic control, and Olympian judgement. While aggrandizing, I wonder sometimes what any of us think about appointing a czar in the private sector.  Would you for example, appoint a czar of human resource management? A czar of fundraising in your church? Would you turn your kids over to tennis camp run by a tennis czar?  The next time we appoint someone, maybe they should be called duke or duchess–it is less Olympian.