February 24, 2009 2:19pm
Posted in: Posts

For those still wondering what motivates President Barack Obama’s decision-making, a report today on his daily routines is immensely insightful. Rather than spend his day in endless meetings with advisers and insiders, Obama reads ten letters from ordinary Americans every single day. That means that when his team put together the housing relief plan that was announced last week, the people they listened to most were the people whose suffering is strongest. Those in or facing home foreclosures that are driving value out of all of our homes. Not the banks, not the lobbyists, but the ordinary folks who helped put him in office. Jake Tapper has the story:

“The letter from the Arizona woman illustrated a policy conundrum, recalled senior adviser David Axelrod. President Obama read it, and absorbed the lesson.

‘She said they had made all their mortgage payments, but were running out of money,’ Axelrod said. ‘And they were told they could not renegotiate unless they were delinquent in their payments.’

Before President Obama’s housing speech last week, he’d made copies of his letter and ‘sent it to his financial team and said, ‘This is the kind of person our housing plan should help,’ Axelrod recalled.

The president had other copies made of that letter. He had it distributed to staff on Air Force One.”

This is yet another example of the textbook empathic leadership that carried Obama into the White House and will hopefully give him the wisdom and courage to make a positive difference during the greatest domestic crisis in decades. As we wrote about in Wired to Care, the greatest challenge and opportunity isn’t to just reflect the viewpoint of a single type of person whose lives are a lot like your own. Instead, the greatest source of empathic leadership is a general interest and feeling for all kinds of people.

Here again, Obama’s actions speak for themselves. When he went to sell the stimulus package, he didn’t head to the South Side of Chicago, where he is beloved and has been for many years. He went to Elkhart, Indiana, a city that he lost to his opponent John McCain during last fall’s election. And he showed that he could speak to their challenges and make a clear case for the spending he wished to make — didn’t everyone think a new overpass would help the town out?

Empathy also has greater impacts when it isn’t a one-off marketing ploy. Obama has been beating this drum since long before it became fashionable. He spoke of an empathy deficit all the way back in 2007. When he spoke with Rick Warren at Saddleback Church last summer, he said that he was running for president because his mother had taught him about empathy when he was a young boy. He carries mementoes given to him by real people he meets on the road as tangible reminders of the people who are counting on his leadership to help improve their lives. When he talked about the housing crisis, he went to Phoenix, Arizona, power base of his former opponent John McCain, to share that he understood where they were coming from. And he insisted on keeping his BlackBerry so that he would have the chance to stay in touch with real folks like the ordinary people whose letters help shape his policy positions.

And it also helps that Obama is perfectly adept at retaining an everyman character in a way that many of his political rivals would struggle toward. This is especially remarkable given what an extraordinary life he has enjoyed. But it isn’t hard for him. On Monday the 23rd, he had a face-off with his former presidential rival John McCain over upgrades to Obama’s helicopter Marine One. McCain pointed to intended upgrades to the vehicle as a clear sign of government spending run amok, expecting Obama to equivocate about the expenditures. Obama defused the situation in self-deprecating manner:

“This is going to be one of our highest priorities. By the way, I’ve already talked to [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates about a thorough review of the helicopter situation. The helicopter I have now seems perfectly adequate to me. Of course, I’ve never had a helicopter before. You know? Maybe — maybe I’ve been deprived and I didn’t know it. But I think it is an example of the procurement process gone amuck and we’re going to have to fix it.”

That’s an answer that it takes a common touch to deliver. It’s far too easy to be insincere when you’re a politician at the high level. All politicians know that they need to look like they care about ordinary people. But the difference between doing PR to convince people that you care and living it is noticeable. Obama has an ability to connect with and inspire folks that we haven’t seen since Bill Clinton — and possibly since Reagan.

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