President Obama does not communicate his vision for public policy as well as he brought thousands to his campaign rallies. As a result, he has spent the last year playing defense – on health care, the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Libya and the federal budget.
The president backs himself into these corners by communicating on a “need to know” basis. He starts with generalities and only escalates to explaining specifics when people are confused or unclear on the goals. The policy cycle usually looks something like this:
- Introduce a general goal (i.e. “protect civilians in Libya”)
- Leave it up to Congress, his Cabinet and his staff to handle the early communication and policy making (i.e. send Secretary Gates to Congress)
- Wait for the country to react
- When this method fails to build widespread support, set up a prime time address to the nation to explain what’s going on
At that point, the President seems somewhat befuddled that the American people haven’t already arrived at the same logical conclusion that he has. It’s like the Sherlock Holmes method for presidential communication. “Give them the facts, and let them deduce the proper conclusions!”
President Obama is making the same mistake that economists do: assuming that people make rational decisions when they have complete information. The hold-up, of course, is that we aren’t rational decision makers and we don’t usually have perfect information.
The American public is motivated by their emotion and their faith, whether the faith is in a religion, their preferred tax policy or in their idea of fairness. Americans assess policy suggestions not only by the planned results but against their faith.
It isn’t enough to tell people a policy is desirable simply on its merits. You have to explain why it’s useful or needed, why that’s an American value, and how you’re going to do it, from the beginning, so that people can vet your specific plans against their specific beliefs.
In his blog post today, Seth Godin describes the habits of people who fail. One of them: “Not signing up for visible and important projects.”
The President is not signing up for the visible and important projects. President Obama’s needs to start the communication process by making a decision on what policy outcomes he’s seeking and communicating not only the concept but also the concrete. Some more of Godin’s advice that the President should take to heart:
- Whenever possible, take on specific projects.
- Make detailed promises about what success looks like and when it will occur.
- Engage others in your projects. If you fail, they should be involved and know that they will fail with you.
- Be really clear about what the true risks are. Ignore the vivid, unlikely and ultimately non-fatal risks that take so much of our focus away.
- Concentrate your energy and will on the elements of the project that you have influence on, ignore external events that you can’t avoid or change.
- When you fail (and you will) be clear about it, call it by name and outline specifically what you learned so you won’t make the same mistake twice. People who blame others for failure will never be good at failing, because they’ve never done it.
President Obama is great at inspiring, but he will never be a leader until he both inspires and explains. We’re all dissolved in rancor and frustration with ineffective systems and broken incentives. The first step to inspiring the American people to accept real reform is honest communication about plans and willingness to pivot.