Obama’s Passed His Probation

By Bob Burnett

On Nov. 4 Barack Obama won 53% of the presidential vote. His 7-point margin reflected lingering doubts he had the right stuff to be President. Over the past six months, Obama has convinced the vast majority of Americans he can do the job. He’s passed his probationary period.

The most recent Pew Research poll gives Obama a 63% job approval rating. Since November, the President has increased his score among Democrats, Independents, and Republicans. Amazingly, 46% of the GOP view Obama favorably.

There’s a famous maxim that effective managers should “be on time, keep their commitments, and practice the Golden Rule.” Despite his packed schedule, Obama’s events happen on time. The Obameter indicates that of the 43 promises he made during the campaign that have been acted upon, 27 have been kept and only 6 commitments broken. Obama seems to practice the Golden Rule; he’s consistently reached out to Republicans even while they’ve rebuffed him.

One leadership rule is “take the blame; share the glory.” Obama practiced this when he took responsibility for the Daschle appointment fiasco. By his willingness to admit mistakes, and many other characteristics, Barack differs from George W. Bush.

Bush appeared to revel in political campaigning but be bored with the job of being President; he was a politician not a leader. While very successful as a politician, Obama seems temperamentally better suited to be president.

Bush was touted as America’s first CEO President, but his experience didn’t prepare him to deal with the Federal bureaucracy. Many departments and agencies suffered from neglect during his administration. Obama had never been a CEO and Sarah Palin accused him of having no managerial experience. Yet Barack had been a successful community organizer. Republicans mocked this background, but it prepared Obama to manage complex organizations—such as the best political campaign in modern US history.

Obama’s style of management is reflected in the process by which he decided to release the torture memos written by Bush’s legal advisers. New York Times columnist David Brooks noted, “People were appointed to debate each side. Obama watched the debate. At the end of the debate, he made a decision and dictated the policy.” In the Bush White House, dissenting opinions were discouraged.

Assessing Obama’s first 100 days, Brooks said, “This has been a very, very competent White House ... They’ve negotiated a lot of tricky issues ... in a sophisticated way. They’ve corrected for some mistakes.” The Bush White House wasn’t competent and didn’t correct for mistakes.

Before becoming a US Senator, Barack Obama was an attorney, academic, and writer—jobs that prepared him to read the huge number of reports that daily come across the president’s desk. In contrast, George W. Bush didn’t like to read; rather than leaf through a lengthy report he preferred receiving a one-page summary.

Of course, whether you prepare adequately doesn’t have much to do with the question of whether, when it’s necessary, a president can make tough and timely decisions. George Bush touted his ability to make tough decisions, describing himself as “the decider.” Yet he didn’t make the decisions required during his administration: preparing for 9/11, changing the occupation strategy in Iraq, responding to Hurricane Katrina, and defusing the financial crisis. Obama seems to be a much better decision maker.

In 2000, Americans elected George Bush president believing that he was a centrist and discovered that he was actually a rigid conservative. In 2008, Americans elected Barack Obama suspecting that he was a diehard liberal and found out he was actually a pragmatist. Bush only listened to right-wing opinions; his obdurate negotiating stance was “my way or the highway.” Obama listens to divergent opinions; his negotiating stance seems to be “what can we get done now.” An example was the stimulus: many economists believed it should be larger than $1 trillion. Obama thought he could only get an $800 billion package through Congress—the final amount was $787 billion. If the economy needs a further boost, Obama will go back to Congress and ask for more funds.

Obama has passed his probationary period because he’s stayed focused on America’s major problems, and communicated with the electorate. He’s earned high approval ratings because millions of Americans go to sleep each night secure in the knowledge their President knows what he’s doing.

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley, Calif., writer. Before starting a second career as a journalist, he was one of the founding executives at Cisco Systems. Email boburnett@comcast.net.

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2009

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