Politics is a team sport played much like football. Right now after the midterm election, President Obama is at half time going into the locker room to re-assess what worked, what didn’t work and what went wrong. As in team sports, there are good players and players who play poorly. There are teams that have all the good players and still lose because their game plan is not well executed. The converse is also true. There are teams that win whose players are not as good as the losing team. They play better. The answers are not always easy whether in football or politics. No one knows for sure what the 2010 election results mean. Republicans assert it means a complete repudiation of the Obama administration’s policies. Obama says he didn’t do a good job of explaining his policies but believes his policies are sound. But, what do Americans believe?
It’s a lot more complicated than either Republicans or Obama think. And the answer as to what voters want is not a universal or simple answer. I suspect the reasoning, behind the voters’ choices, lies somewhere between what Democrats and Republicans think. Yet, the election was a game changing moment for President Obama. Great leaders, coaches and players are defined by how they handle game changing moments. This will be President Obama’s moment to shine and lead even in more adversity than he already had. Here are 5 things President Obama must do to rise to the moment at this turning point.
First, he must shake up his staff, starting with his communications staff. Under President Obama, substantial legislation passed from the Affordable Health Care Act, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Student Aid increasing Pell grants, unemployment benefits extension, Small Business Act, bailing out Chrysler and General Motors and adding 3 million more jobs to name a few. Yet, the Administration never explained what these bills meant to the American people. So, it’s like a coach calling the plays and no one understands the call or how to execute the play. Republicans and some Democrats question the cost of the legislation. And then at the President’s press conference following the election, he explains for the first time, at least that I heard, that he never intended to make government grow by the billions and to become so intrusive. He made clear it was a response to an emergency and not his agenda. His communications team never made that case to the American people. I grade the communications staff with a C- minus and I graded on a curve.
Second, Obama needs to revamp his economic team. Numbers don’t lie. With 9.6% unemployment generally and 16.7% unemployment in the African American community, all the billions in money spent is not working. No, the car is not out of the ditch. It’s still in the ditch. Yes, as President Obama now acknowledges, it’s stuck in neutral. When people are in survival mode and trying to keep food on their table and a roof over their head, little else is important. Fixing the broken economy trumps everything for people trying to survive, including health care reform. The economic team has not been able to move the mountain. Let’s fire some of them and hire others.
Third, Obama needs to open up lines of communications beyond those he already engages. President Obama spoke about the White House causes a bubble effect. I think many on his staff are also stuck in that same bubble. Connecting and seeking advice with people outside his inner circle and staff will be the best thing he can do right now. He needs to re-connect with his team, progressives, African Americans, Latinos, youth, women and all those who brought him to the dance in 2008. And he needs to continue engaging with them to 2012.
Fourth, he needs to convey to the American people that he gets their pain and is working hard on it. Being calm and collected conveys the impression of being distant. People feeling pain want to know that their leader understands their pain. That’s what Velma Hart was seeking when she asked about the dismal economy at a town hall meeting: Is this our new reality? She wanted to feel that President Obama felt her pain.
Fifth, he needs to empower voters to assist in the process and not just sit on the sidelines as spectators. Everyone needs to help with the process.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is an attorney and legal/political commentator. She holds a Juris Doctorate from George Washington University Law School and a BA from the University of Pennsylvania.