The President and the Power Drain

I argued in chapter 2 of The Elements of Power that Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election largely on the strength of his gifts as a speaker. Obviously, he had other sources of personal power: knowledge (he's bright, well educated, and spoke knowledgably about the issues), attraction (he's a nice-looking man with a likable family), and character (claims that he is a Muslim and wasn't born in America were ludicrous ad hominem attacks by some political enemies).  But his greatest source of power during the campaign was his expressiveness. An eloquent speaker, he delivered passionate messages about the need for change to increasingly galvanized audiences who were hungry for change.

Barack Obama in Shadow Neither Hillary Clinton (his key opponent in the Democratic primaries) nor John McCain (his Republican presidential opponent) were remotely as polished and passionate as Obama. In comparison, they seemed clumsy and hesitant, with lackluster messages, mediocre delivery skills, and uninspiring stage presence. Like a star athlete competing against amateurs, Obama's skill as a speaker highlighted their deficiencies. Obama also understood rhetorical structure. He knew how to craft a message so the key points resonated through stories, metaphors, and artful repetition. His victory speech, delivered in Chicago's Grant Park after he had been declared the winner of the presidential election, was a masterpiece of rhetorical structure-and it may be that that speech marked the apex of his power.

In the two years since his election, he has experienced a significant power drain, evident in markedly lower approval ratings, voter discontent during the mid-term elections, the rise of the Tea Party movement, and the resurgence of a Republican party that had lost most of its luster during the final George W. Bush years. When we look at the political climate now, it is difficult to recall that in the first six months of his presidency, Obama was riding high. He had stellar approval ratings, a majority in both houses of congress, and the apparent mandate from the American people to institute wholesale change. He appeared invincible and charged ahead like a community reformer on steroids riding a stallion named Blank Check. Now, just two years later, the shift in power in the House of Representatives was the largest in seventy years. Although the Democrats barely retained control of the Senate, Nancy Pelosi is out as Speaker of the House, and a feisty Republican majority now believes they are in the position to dictate much of the agenda during the last two years of Obama's presidency.

Among the most important power sources for leaders of any type is reputation, which I define as "how a leader is regarded by the community he or she leads." Leaders who are highly regarded have a substantial power boost because of the trust and confidence that comes with positive regard, and the factor that contributes most to positive regard is achieving what the community expects the leader to achieve. In short, reputation power depends primarily on performance, particularly for newer leaders. For political leaders, reputation is the wind that can fill their sails. As long as their constituents think highly of them (and less of their opponents), they can draw from a seemingly bottomless pool of political capital. But that largess lasts only as long as they achieve results, and here's where Obama has stumbled. He devoted most of his first year to sweeping health care reform (an issue that was not a bellwether of his campaign) and did too little, too late to solve the country's economic woes-except for pushing through a stimulus package that looked like big government spending and smelled like a reprieve for the bankers and asset managers who brought the country to its economic knees while stuffing their own pockets and congratulating themselves on their good fortune.

He may have gotten health care reform passed-but the recession deepened, more people lost their jobs (and many their homes), and Republicans seized every opportunity to complain that Obama was spending the country into catastrophic debt while people were still reeling from an economic train wreck. It's a shame Bill Clinton hadn't whispered into his ear, "Barack, it's the economy."

In fairness to Clinton, maybe he did advise and Obama didn't listen. Like many young idealists, the president believes in his own myth-that through commitment, charisma, and boundless energy he can accomplish many times what a normal person can. In other words, that he can outrun speeding locomotives and leap tall buildings in a single bound. And he believed in the myth of non-partisan cooperation, that his opponents would do what was right for the country despite their obsession with returning to power, and this clearly has not been the case.

Because Obama has failed to get the results people expected, his approval ratings have plummeted, he has come under increasing attack from his opponents, and his party lost many seats in the mid-term elections. The power loss the president has suffered consists largely of a precipitous drop in his reputation power, and unless he restores that power source in the next two years, he and the democrats will remain vulnerable.

His eloquence once served him well and could do so again, but eloquence is no counter for a widespread perception of incompetence. Moreover, the power of expression depends on how well aligned a speaker is with his intended audience. During the 2008 election campaign, even many Republican voters had had their fill of the Bush White House and were desperate for change, and Democrats were apoplectic at the prospect of four more years of Republican mismanagement of the country. Barack Obama articulated a convincing and compelling vision of change, but now, in 2010, he is the mainstream politician-the man in charge-not the oracle of change candidate Obama appeared to be, and that makes all the difference. Oracles don't need a track record; they just have to sound convincing.

Unfortunately for President Obama, he is now perceived as a well-intentioned idealist who took on too many challenges at once and couldn't solve the most basic problems facing Americans. Moreover, with a new Republican majority in the house, if the economy and employment pictures improve during the next two years, Republicans will get likely receive the credit those improvements, whether or not they deserve it, and that will further damage Obama's reputation as he heads into his reelection campaign in 2012.

If I could whisper in his ear, I would say, "It's your reputation, Barack. Unless you start achieving the results that matter most to people, your power drain will continue, and you will not be reelected." Eloquence matters, but performance matters more. For more on Obama's expressiveness power and his rise to the presidency, see my new book The Elements of Power: Lessons on Leadership and Influence (AMACOM, January 2011).

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