Sunday, January 24, 2010

Gut Check Time

As the President's State of the Union Address quickly approaches, Americans are taking a moment to reflect over the past year.  A year ago, you were considered "cool" if you supported Obama, now you're considered "cool" if you diss him. A brewing frustration with the state of our union has ushered in a new era of populist anger making it en vogue to hate Obama no matter who you are.  White people are upset at the amount of spending and with Obama's decisions on national security.  Black people are upset because there was an expectation that the first Black President would specifically place more focus on the Black community.  Democrats are upset because more troops have gone to Afghanistan, the Healthcare Bill has no public option and gays still have no equality in our military or our society at large.  Republicans are upset for more reasons than I have the space to enumerate in this blog but, let's face it, they're mostly upset because they're not in power anymore. And last but certainly not least, Independents are upset because after a year of trying out the new guy, they still have the perception that they are in the same situation they were in a year ago.  With this much raging opposition teeing up the State of the Union Address only one thing is certain:  It is gut check time for Barack Obama.

Invariably, before every key address that Obama delivers, America manages to set the stage such that each speech becomes the "most important speech of Obama's career."  Although that phrase has been repeated so many times at this point that it is in danger of becoming de minimis, the general sentiment still holds true for this State of the Union Address.  Democrats, Republicans, and Independents are angry and they're about ready to throw in the towel (if they haven't already).  What Obama says and does, not only during this speech, but over the course of the next few weeks that follow may very well make the difference between Obama as a two-term president or Obama as a one-hit wonder.  With so much riding on the line, this State of the Union needs to unearth the hungry candidate that 53% of America believed in during the 2008 campaign. 
Am I suggesting that Obama needs to stoop down to the level of the Tea Baggers or the Becks or Limbaughs of the world and engage in petty bickering with people who only want to bring him down? No. However, he can't afford to turn a blind eye any longer to the effect that such voices can have on those who would support him, especially when he's not providing a narrative to counter the one that is beginning to solidify from coast to coast.  What narrative am I talking about?  I'm talking about the narrative that is somehow starting to convince people that, even though the people need jobs, the government shouldn't spend a dime to do anything about it.  The narrative that the health care bill is too confusing and too costly.  The narrative that prosecuting terrorists in federal courts is some kind of radical new concept that somehow makes America less safe.  Basically I'm talking about the narrative produced by the fringe Right, and co-signed by the Republicans who want their power back,  that Obama is taking the country in the wrong direction.  If this narrative is allowed to fester, allowed to remain unchecked, then guess what? - perception becomes reality and 2012 becomes a foregone conclusion.

Part of good leadership involves not only performance, but also controlling the perception of your performance. Drawing the spotlight to your accomplishments is almost as important as the accomplishments themselves.  When I was back on the yard in college, my frat and our rival frat were constantly trying to out-do each other in community service for the Fraternity of the Year award.  We would do a voter registration drive, they would invite the candidates to come speak on campus.  They would spend a day speaking to a few high school kids about college, we would organize a semester-long program to make sure they got to college.  It never ended. One of the the things that our old heads passed down to us early on is that no matter whether it was a major or a minor victory, we had to make sure that our campus newspaper was right there taking pictures and writing up a story.  Sometimes we would even write up our own story and submit it as an editorial.  For a bunch of college kids trying to win bragging rights to a service award, sure it was admittedly over the top.  However, we ended up winning that award each year over the other guys who were arguably doing about the same amount of work we were doing.  The only difference between us and them was that they weren't controlling the message.  As a result, public perceptions were formed, we won and they lost.

The same principle applies to this situation on a much larger scale. America needs to hear a simple explanation of WHY we need a Healthcare Bill, WHAT is in it, and not only HOW it is going to work but, more importantly, how it is going to help usBefore you make the decision to do it, America needs to understand WHY it is a good idea to try terrorist suspects in civilian courts.  America needs to hear HOW the stimulus spending that was passed is responsible for the turnaround of the economy.  Give examples. Show highlights.  Put the spotlight on families and communities that have been helped by this so-called "big government spending" and make the case over and over and over again until anybody who dares to speak out against it is painted as "unpatriotic."  EXPLAIN that America is an ocean liner, not a speedboat.  It's one thing to tell people that change will take time, it's another thing to make them understand it.

There has been a negligence on the part of the Obama Administration that the American people will just "get it."  That, due to the enthusiasm of the 2008 election, the American people will remain steadfast in their support and assume that Obama is doing the right thing for the country without providing them with any explanation whatsoever.  This cannot continue.  He must change his tone in this regard if he is to be successful in drowning out the voices of opposition who are determined to say everything, anything, to ensure that they regain power.

In short, he's gotta kick some ass. However, the burden does not rest solely with Obama.  The burden also rests with us to be receptive to a narrative that, despite its shortcomings, is still leaps and bounds better than anything the opposition is talking about.  It's Obama's job to create the narrative, but it is our job not to fall for the okey doke of the populist anger movement who desperately need a scapegoat to take out their frustrations on.  Remember who got us into this mess in the first place?  It was the same folks who told you and I about a year ago that Sarah Palin's pregnant teen-aged daughter was getting married to her highschool boyfriend and that Joe-the-Plumber was going to be starting a new business soon.  How did all of that turn out again?  Exactly. That's what I thought.

So even though Obama is about due for a gut check as we approach the State of the Union Address, so, too, are the American people.  We need to ask ourselves, are we falling for the hype, folks?  Are we really expecting an ocean liner to turn around as fast as a speed boat?  Do we really expect jobs to fall out of the sky with absolutely no spending on the part of the government?  In other words, are we allowing the negative narrative to form our reality?  Now don't get me wrong, Obama's not infallible.  Far from it.  Not every policy he has created or will create will be perfect, but I'm pretty sure about one thing - even his worst idea is better than anything coming out of the very loud mouths of the opposition, especially when they don't have any ideas of their own.
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