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Leadership Thought #412 – Obama’s Substance Over Romney’s Style


I tend  to avoid political issues in this blog, but as a lifelong student of leadership and history and lover of this country, I just can not remain silent.  Please bear with me and I promise not make this a habit.

Far too many people think that leadership is about style over substance these days.  It’s almost as if it is more important to look and sound like a leader rather than behave like one.  I wonder if historical figures like Abraham Lincoln with his high pitched nasally voice ad physical awkwardness or George Washington who was personally aloof and somewhat stiff in public settings would even stand a chance today.  When a society starts spending more time focusing on how things appear rather than how they truly are, we as a people are in trouble.  It is the content of someone’s character that matters most when tough decisions need to be made.  We are in serious times both geopolitically and socioeconomically.  We need deliberative thinkers who think before they act, don’t rush to judgment, have the ability to prioritize amongst competing issues, stay cool under pressure, maintain a reasonable level of consistency in their actions and messaging, build alliances rather than make enemies, and tell us the truth even when it is unpopular. The presidency shouldn’t be just a popularity contest.

In the presidential debate last night, it was clear to anyone watching that one person completely outclassed the other on the issues and quality of thinking – President Barack Obama.  However, many in the media said the loser did okay because he accomplished his objective of looking presidential and that was enough.  How someone who spent half the evening red faced, looking confused and stuck on prescripted talking points (without any original thinking) looked presidential is beyond my comprehension.  Moreover, this same person completely changed positions he has been running on for many months (if not years) seemingly without any remorse or explanation.  He even had the gall to complain when his shifting positions and professional decisions were challenged and he was in a debating forum.  What did he think he was there for?  And, by the way who has been running more attack ads that his supporters and him.

Romney often clings to his Massachusetts legacy, but here are the facts.  He left office with a 34% approval rating which was down from 61% when he took office.  In the latest Massachusetts state poll, he trails the president by 15% even after his first debate bump.  If the people of his own home state don’t want him back, why would we?  He also talks about his record of bi-partisan as governor, but he had no choice but to work with the legislature which was overwhelmingly Democratic to get anything passed.  And, by the way, how could a governor who made 800 vetoes in only 4 years consider himself bi-partisan in the first place (707 were overturned).  The leaders of the state legislature basically said they had to remove him from the budget discussions in 2007 to get anything done.  In addition, his claims of his impact on education are farcical.  Massachusetts was a leader in education well before he came into office and has somehow managed to maintain that status even after he left a number of years ago.  I won’t even go into his business dealings in terms of bankruptcies filed by companies he managed due to leverage he created to make himself wealthy and the number of layoffs and jobs shipped overseas. Facts and track records do matter.

I am actually someone who regularly votes for candidate outside of my own party and will continue to do so.  I do my best to measure the candidates against the facts and issues at hand.  It’s important to me that someone’s track record aligns with their rhetoric. I do not like being lied to even if it comes with a smile.  Speaking out of both sides of your mouth may be instinctual for politicians but it is a big turnoff for me.  I also like to have someone who is somewhat cerebral and thinks about things before acting but once they make a decision then sticks to it and sees it through.  I actually used to be a Mitt Romney fan before I took the time to get to know him better and observed his behavior over the past 18 months.  I used to feel he was more moderate and consistent in his views – someone who could lead from the center.  I now get the sense he will do and say anything to get elected including using global crises and tragedies for political gain.  His one trip abroad as a candidate was an embarrassment.  And, don’t be fooled the rest of the world is watching.

Life is full of paradox. We have a current president who was often critiqued for being more style than substance when he entered office, but has proven he is a man of substance and steadfastness of purpose.  The criticisms of him now have very little to do with style or political gamesmanship.   If anything his policies have been centrist and reflective of the urgency of the world and domestic situation.  If you step back and consider what he walked into 4 years ago and where we are today, the progress has been astonishing.  Sure he’s not perfect and some things didn’t get fully done, but we are out or Iraq, have plan to be out of Afghanistan, brought Bin Laden to justice, helped remove Khadafy with no loss of American life, stabilized a world financial and insurance crisis, saved an auto industry that was on the verge of collapse, mitigated the horrible damage of a home foreclosure crisis and kept millions of people in their homes, stopped the hemorrhaging of job losses which were at about 700,00o per month during the depths of the recession and are now growing  of 6 figures, expanded helpful safety net programs for people in genuine need including veterans during a time of  personal crisis – food stamps exist for a reason, reduced the cost of college debt for millions of students, passed comprehensive healthcare reform to cover all Americans and eliminated penalties for pre-existing conditions. And, by the way the stock market has boomed not collapsed during his presidency.

I’m not big on ideological arguments or positions.  They never seem to be grounded in reality and hinder an individual’s ability to think more broadly about complex issues.  Sometimes there are no easy answers or talking points. If you only ever vote on one side of the aisle and only listen to one point of view then you aren’t really thinking.  You are being spoon fed what you want to hear.  For example, personal income tax cuts for the top 1% do not create jobs – this has never been proven and in fact some of our best decades had periods of much higher tax rates for this income group.  America has never been led successfully from the extremes but only ever through the middle ground of shared sacrifice, dialogue and compromise.  Our Founding Fathers intuitively know this.    Anyone who looks objectively at the president’s record will see that he tried very hard to govern from the center and make practical and thoughtful decisions that moved us from a survival to success mode as a country.  He did this while dealing with an obstructionist Congress whose approval ratings are at record lows (start there if you want to make a difference).  Mitt Romney may badly want to be president, so badly in fact that he has done little else for 7 years, but there is no compelling reason to choose his style over the president’s substance.  Leadership is about results not rhetoric and the records in both regards are clear.

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7 Responses

  1. Ed,

    I think this is an excellent, and well argued post. While one wants to avoid any political bias I found your analysis and explanations quite compelling. I wish more people would look at issues so thoughtfully and objectively.

  2. Professor,

    I have a tremendous amount of respect for your opinion, but I disagree with you on this. Not with the fact that Mr. Romney (and his running mate) seem to be disingenous with alot of their positions, but with the fact that you seem to believe Obama is any different.

    First off, I dont believe this political era can logically be compared to that of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. The growth of the internet has educated us a lot more on what really happens behind the scenes. I can say with great certainty that the leadership country of the past 20-30 years will never reach the level of integrity of the 2 men you mentioned, let alone Barack Obama.

    I completely agree that Obama dominated last nights debate. It was clear that Romney’s campaign devised a strategy to just “play it safe”. I was disappointed in that because I wanted him to have the same fire he had in the first debate, where he made the President look like an amateur. He decided to completely avoid the disaster that was this administrations response to the death of 4 Americans on foreign soil. He decided to not bring up Mr. Obama cozying up to Chavez, one of this countries greatest enemies. No mention of President Obama deciding to chat with the ladies of The View as opposed to Mr. Netenyahu. The strategy was not to win the debate, but just not lose. he lost my respect on that regard.

    However, to say that Romney is all style and no substance just doesnt add up. Obama was elected on the premise of being a cool guy. Mr. Romney is the anthesis of style….he is the stereotypical angry, middle aged billionaire that the people of this country are raised to villify. The youth of this nation loved him because he smokes cigarrettes, can speak elequantly about Jay-Z and Beyonce being on his Ipod, and is a great basketball player. He can read beautiful speeches off of a teleprompter, and has an unbelievable level of charm and charisma (something the previous president desperately lacked).

    Obama definately has the style…but where is the substance? He took one of the highest approval ratings any president ever had and drove it down to George W. Bush levels. He and those of his party literally had a free reign to do whatever they wanted in this country for 2 years. What was the end result? The American people voting in the opposing party to congress and senate by a landslide. All of the goodwill earned for the 8 timultuous Bush years were gone in a flash. He promised hope and change…but even those of his party realized soon enough – meet the old boss, same as the new boss (The Who was never so right!)

    Professor, you taught me that great leaders dont make excuses, accept responsibility for their actions, and bring people together. For the past four years, we continue to hear about how the previous administration is still responsible. Additionally, I dont recall a time where this country felt more divided. You can blame a stubborn republican party, but that is against the very lessons you taught us in class. Ultimately, Mr. Obama is the President. With all of the great things that come with being POTUS, he has a great responsibilty for the divide that exists in this country. its his responsibility to turn nay-sayers into believers (which Bill Clinton did so well).

    I am not saying Romney is any different. If we were voting on principle and integrity, Ron Paul would be the man for the position. Unfortunately, the real powers that be in this country have left us with these 2. However, to put one on a higher moral and performance level over the other seems to be a bit naive.

    Just my 2(0,000,000) cents!

    Rick

    • Rick,

      It is good to hear from you. I hope that all is well on your end. It’s okay to disagree in a free society and I’m glad you took the time to share your thoughts. I’ll try and address your points one by one:

      First, I don’t believe we have to give up on greatness from our leaders and do believe we have people out there with this potential. The era is irrelevant. At minimum, better informed people should make better decisions and have more options to make sure this happens. The problem is most people are too lazy, too distracted or too busy to do the research and prefer to find information that suits their existing opinions. A well-functioning democracy depends on an informed citizenry that will hold its leaders accountable for results and never gets too satisfied with the status quo. Our country could sure use a Lincoln or Washington right now (or at any time) and I don’t pretend that Obama is up there with either one.

      Second, Romney had no chance of winning this debate and he knew it. I don’t want a president who does what’s tactically convenient rather than having the courage of his convictions, but he must have convictions to begin with. He’s been very critical of Obama on foreign policy issues and last night was his big chance to make his case. Winning isn’t everything although in terms of scoring the debates I’d say it’s 2 out of 3 for Obama. Yes, he had a rough first debate. Most sitting presidents do, however he has rallied nicely. I also believe much of Romney said regarding his economic plans in the first debate doesn’t stand the test of logic or math. He is very big on rhetoric and light on specifics. It’s easy to throw red meat to the masses.

      As far as Libya goes, sure it could have been handled better, but all these people second guessing intelligence details and personal motivations with no real sense of the facts troubles me even more. Interestingly arm chair quarterbacks never have to throw the pass themselves. I understand the anger but the knee jerk reactions from political opponents to sniff out a cover up are distasteful to say the least. Whatever happened to getting your facts straight first and using professional journalistic discretion? We are at war. Sadly, in war mistakes are made and people die including ambassadors in dangerous places. Do you honestly believe Obama knowingly put the ambassador’s life at risk? I can’t help you with that if you do, but is counter to how he has made other important life/death decisions. Does Obama get any credit for the tens of thousands of lives he saved by removing Khadafy. What about opting for drones over ground troops in Pakistan and Afghanistan? Does that count? How about pushing Iraq and Afghanistan to step up and risk their own lives over that of American troops?

      Third, not sure what you are talking about in terms of cozying up to Chavez. Very often these exchanges can be taken out of context. I guarantee I could find pictures of the last 8 president and many of their cabinet members in meeting with or having conversations with leaders we don’t consider friends. In addition, unless you plan on making war with everyone you need to search for diplomatic solutions. I am not big fan of the international relations doctrine of “Realpolitik” first espoused by Kissinger and seemingly still in place today, but it means we often cozy up to people that are distasteful. Bush hosted the Taliban in TX when he was Governor and reached out To Khadafy, his father cozied up to Saddam Hussein, Nixon met with Mao, and Reagan made friends with all sorts of interesting characters especially in Latin America. I’m sure Clinton has some compromising pictures but probably not Carter 🙂

      In terms of meeting with Netanyahu, I believe the official log books states Obama has had more than 30 private conversation with him including meeting face to face on multiple occasions and they are regularly in contact via diplomatic channels. Public meetings between leaders are largely for ceremonial purposes. By the way, Netanyahu has a tendency to be pushy with US presidents and back them into public corners. Just about every president who has had to deal with him has been a bit wary. Netanyahu is a very savvy international player who is good at getting what he wants and needs to be managed carefully.

      Fourth, when I refer to Romney’s style I am referring the persona and positions that have been manufactured by his advisors which anyone who has followed his career and even the last presidential campaign can clearly see. He is not the same man he was. He has become a bad version of a typical politician who plots every move and sentence for political gain. These days he also seems has a casual acquaintance with his past and the truth. I miss the Moderate Republican with a strong sense of fairness and social justice.

      Fifth, Obama does give a great speech which is a nice asset for a leader, but he also in my opinion, has exhibited deliberative judgment and a strong track record of accomplishment under trying circumstances which I refer to in my blog. Oddly enough, he isn’t that great off the cuff which both Romney and he share. He is definitely someone who overthinks before he talks to a fault and is prone to wonkishness. We don’t know what would have happened should McCain have been elected, but I’m comfortable believing things would have been much worse.

      In terms of having control of both houses his first two years, he didn’t have a filibuster proof majority which makes a big difference and was dealing with a minority party that blocked him at every turn and was very public about the fact that this was their agenda. He had to expend serious political capital navigating the economic crisis and leading the war efforts which whether you like hearing it or not he didn’t create. I also believe he wasn’t served well by either Pelosi or Reid. Gingrich started the era of political divisiveness during his speakership and Tom Delay was only too happy to follow suit and sadly Washington has never been the same. It is a much different town than the one I came to in 1984. Divisiveness sells and makes big careers for media personalities who prey on our fears and insecurities on both sides of the continuum.

      Lastly, I have been called many things but not naive. This is the only part of your comments I take umbrage with. I am far from it and better read than most people on these topics. I also study leadership for a living. I am qualified to make this assessment. Quite frankly, I would state that anyone who thinks Ron Paul has the right answers could give me a run for my money on naiveté. Libertarianism is like the artificial perfect world they use to teach students economics. It may sound good in theory, but has next to no chance of working when confronted with societal reality.

      I don’t believe Obama is the second coming or a saint. He has shown leadership flaws that make me squirm at times, but it does feel as if he learns from his mistakes. I’ve had many issues with him but probably for different reasons than you. In terms of morality, where I sit on the political side of the fence, Obama gibes much more nicely with my moral and ethical views. I also believe there are no solid grounds for denying him a second term. Of course, you are welcome to come to your own conclusions in this regard. Romney changed after the 2008 election and not for the better. He started to value winning above all else which seems unfortunately to be a trait he had exemplified in his business career for many years beforehand.

      Decisions and actions always have consequences especially when made by leaders with great influence and power. In my admittedly somewhat biased opinion, I believe Romney could be dangerous for this country for a wide variety of reasons and destabilize a shaky economic and geopolitical foundation that has only recently begun to stabilize. It’s amazing how people forget how bad things were in 2008 and how much better they are now.

      I sincerely wish you well and do value your opinions and passion. I genuinely hope you vote your conscience and do what you believe is best for the country. This is what elections are for…

      All the best,
      Ed

      • Hi Professor, thanks for the reply. We could go back and forth on this for some time, so ill try to leave it relatively brief. My main point is, statistics and political talking points are a really dangerous thing and go both ways. I see statistics from both sides that completely contradict one another. While you see and read that Romney is a greedy, heartless executive and professional politician – I tend to view him as a typical CEO who had success in his state (which is predominantly democrat), success with the Olympics, and success in his companies. I am positive you can find many sources stating otherwise. Saying that, I could also pull many up to support those claims. Who do you believe? I just look at the end result, however you look at it, Mr. Romney is running for the POTUS. He is a successful person, just as President Obama is. To reach that level of success, you really do have to be a pretty unique individual. I dont think that the editor of Rolling Stone knows 1% of how Romney achieved his success, just like Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck really know how Obama reached the presidency. Those types of sources cannot be taken seriously at all.

        I will vote for Romney not because I think he is an outstanding person, only because I agree with the general ideology he is trying to represent. His policies tend to support successful people in this country, and that type of person will typically have my vote. Obama’s platform will tend to be supported by less successful people, as it empowers them to stay less successful. Im not saying that all Obama voters are not successful, or all Romney voters are, anything in absolutes is never good. This is just, generally speaking, a reality. I am positive that the majority of people on the welfare system will support Obama. In the case of many of these people, I have 0 sympathy. My grandparents (on both sides of the tree) came to this country with nothing but young children, did not speak the language, and had to start from scratch after the prime of their youth. They raised 4 successful children between them, and never asked for anything from government. My in-laws came from a war-torn Bosnia in their 40’s and did the same thing. This is still the greatest country in the world, despite all of the flaws. This may sound cruel, but anyone who fails to capitalize on all of the opportunity that is offered (particularly those under the poverty line, which anywhere else in the world is considered middle class), is not someone who I prefer to share many opinions with.

        In regards to Ron Paul, there is no doubt he has some pretty crazy policies. I was just trying to make a point that this is the only man left in politics that truly believes what he says unwaveringly. In fact, he espouses the same values that George Washington and the rest of our founding fathers, which you refer to, built this country on. He has taken a platform (dismissed by many) and brought people from both parties together using nothing more than a grass roots campaign. He thrust himself into a race that had billion dollar corporations funding Romney and Obama and actually challenged them at times. This, in my opinion, is the definition of true leadership.

        Finally, and definitely most importantly, I apologize for my poor use of words. I by no means meant to claim you were naive. Its pretty obvious you are far from it and meant no disrespect. This is a good discussion best saved over a cold beverage!

        Hope all is well and thanks for stimulating the brain a bit. Not often do I write for this long!

        Rick

      • Now I remember why i gave you an “A” We have slightly different world views and that’s okay. I do believe that the facts are the facts and not all statistics are not equally malleable. I also define success in terms of more than just wealth accumulation and am very concerned as to how it was earned. Moeover, no one is this country does it alone. Government programs from the past and present abound to make your daily life easier, safer, healthier, freer, more full of opportunity, have less risk and your old age less vulnerable. The beauty of the American model is that our government, for some period of time, did as much as it could to give people options in their life regardless of their social class. Upward social mobility was a conscious political objective. We despised the English class system model and rebelled against it. We put the rights of all above the interests of a few. Not everyone wins equally in a capitalist society. This is logically impossible, so the obvious question we have to ask oruselves is what is the basic quality of life we should expect for all of our citizens. The values barometer that every developed nation must ask itself is how it treats the most vulnerable of its population (e.g., I do believe that healthcare should be a basic human right and not a function of how much money you make) not how well the people at the top are doing. The people at the top anywhere always do okay and their success doesn’t always mean they are special or operate with a more developed sense of ethics and morality (often quite the contrary). I could care less about what happens elsewhere and will always expect more of the U.S. We can and should do better. Tax cuts for the wealthy and major cuts in social spending for our more vulnerable populations is certainly not the answer. I’d rather start with reducing our capacity to make war and kill other human beings. I’d also ask those who have gained the most to pay a little more. When you benefit from a system you should put back into it.

  3. Since you have mentioned it twice, I have to give a response to the insinuation that Mr. Romney only wants to improve the lives of the 1%’ers out there. Thats just not true at all. Let me give you an example of how one of his policies will impact my family’s life tremendously. Let me preface this example with my background. My wife and I work 9-5 jobs, we live in a small 2 BR townhome and have 2 children. We (gladly) share a room with our 6 month old child, so we are hardly 1%’ers.

    Mr. Romney wants to eliminate capital gains for anyone making UNDER 250k. So, under this policy, the top 1% will continue to pay capital gains. However, for normal, middle class folks like my family, we are being given an incentive to invest. I own a townhome that I rent out. I am looking to sell the property in 2 years time thru a rent to own agreement which is being finalized with the current tenant. If that happens, Romney is elected and his policy is passed, I will make a profit and will not have to give 15% of it to the government. In turn, this motivates me to purchase more rentals. When you empower motivated individuals, give them incentives to take risks and invest, it stimulates the economy. This isnt a political talking point, the example I gave is 100% real.

    I can give some real life examples of how my family was directly impacted by Obama in the last four years.

    –The healthcare benefits I receive thru my company jumped nearly 10% for my entire family over the past 2 years, (coincidentally?)after Obamacare was shoved through congress.

    –The cost of my electricity has increased – I remember paying around $200/month during the winter, We are lucky if we keep it under $300 nowadays.

    –The cost of food have gone up consideringly.

    –And gas….a real income killer. I know the response to this, – the Obama administration does not have much control over the cost of gas. I generally agree with this. The only reason I bring this up is because in the 2008 election, Mr. Obama had no issue politicizing the cost of gas, which has since doubled during his 4 years. His campain has shifted in to blaming republicans for “licking their chops” at the rising gas prices. “Only in politics do people respond to bad news with enthusiasm”, he recently said. He should know, because he did the same thing in 2008. This is the pinnacle of what politics is all about – empty promises and complete hypocracy.

    http://www.buzzfeed.com/andrewkaczynski/obama-2008-ads-focused-on-gas-prices

    These are all things that Mr. Obama promised to help the middle class – aka, My Family – with. I can say, with no political bias here, he had his chance and failed miserably in meeting his commitments. There may be things that are out of his control, but he should have accounted for that prior to making promises to get him elected.

    I have changed jobs since taking your class, but I still carry around a folder of every piece of information I took from it. This includes the Harvard Business Reviews, your ppt presentations and most importantly – my notes. Its the only class where I still kept my notes, by the way! The reason I keep this is because I still review these from time to time whenever I am in a bit of a funk at work or feel myself from slipping back into some bad habits. One of the valuable pieces of advise I always carry with me from your class – Give credit to others when things go well, assume responsibility when they dont. Be the Chief Accountability Officer. In my opinion, President Obama has been too busy blaming others for his shortcomings, and failing to hold himself accountable. We are speculating that the economy would be worse under Mccain, but the bottom line truth is – for my family and I – the past 4 years have been a step in the wrong directon.

    I will give you the last word, if you choose to take it. Either way, again, its been great discussing this with you and I promise – I will still keep reading your posts 🙂

    Rick

    • Rick, I am going to let you have the last word. I sincerely appreciate your passions and concerns. I have a different take and response for your points, but that can happen offline if you like. My best to you and your family. Glad you kept your notes…

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