The President’s Challenge: How to Build Confidence and Reward Loyalty

by George Kennedy on September 28, 2011


The President's Challenge:  How to Build Confidence and Reward Loyalty

I, too, felt the President’s comments before the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) dinner last weekend were “curious” – as Cong. Maxine Waters characterized them. To be fair, the offending comments, few as they were, came in the latter part of a well-received speech. The outspoken Waters, whom I have long respected, graciously expressed the unspoken disappointment of many, maybe most, African Americans that the President would publicly dress them down when they have been his most loyal supporters.

Setting aside for the moment any griping from one or two members of the CBC, what were the antecedents – from the African American community – for the President’s remarks? Apart from racial pride, African Americans have fewer reasons to support the President than most elements of his base.

Whose community has been hit more severely than theirs during this recession? Whose unemployment numbers (16+ percent) approach the level found in African American communities?

… And, who has been singularly more ignored by this President more than they have?

And then, there is this: the African American community may be the only community at which the President could vent the frustration, the anger, the disappointment I imagine he feels without the risk of serious political blowback.

Did you see the President’s facial expression as he exited the stage?

No smile; not the friendly visage of someone exhorting the faithful to man the ramparts. His jaw was set as if to say, “I am in a struggle to revive my presidency and I need your help.” O.K., I think we got that.

Cong. Waters is right when she says the President would not have taken such a harsh tone with the LGBT community or the Jewish community. Both groups publicly pressed the White House to take up their causes, expressed a willingness to sit out the next election and, in a stunning act of political retribution, one of those two groups voted counter intuitively (NY-9th) to send the White House a message.

What price loyalty?

Republicans do raise a good question when they ask the African American community, how are you rewarded by the Democrats for your loyalty? The response they offer may not be wholly satisfactory to them either but, then, the Republican Party as a prospective political home, is not an attractive alternative for African Americans. In fact, the conservative treatment of the President has been totally disgraceful.

The President’s gnawing problem, even now, is one of sagging confidence in his leadership, his ability to make a difference in the lives of others. He struggles with this. A valid observation is that he has to offer more than “patience” and “hang with me.”

Lately, and I mean just in the past few weeks, he has gone on the offense against his critics calling them out by name, thanks in part to Elizabeth Warren. This new, more aggressive, posture is momentarily uplifting, but is it genuine? Or, just a strategic adjustment to harsh political reality: the fear of loss.

I was taught by my venerable maternal grandfather that confidence is earned and confidence-building is a process. The process can be slow and methodical but the point is, confidence cannot be granted upon command as the President’s comments suggested. “Stop whining, stop grumbling… take off your bedroom slippers… put on your marching shoes and join me in the fight!” Seriously!

The most charitable characterization I would offer of the President’s remarks is Presidential ungraciousness. This was more than just a casual deviation from the script. African Americans are most frequently cast in negative images; they know it and expect it from a complicit media. But, “take off your bedroom slippers!” That has to represent a new standard.

Here is a military analogy that may offer some context for the dilemma President Obama confronts. Troops in battle (or not) respond to orders – they have to!

That said, commands from officers do not always translate into confidence in leadership even in the armed services, otherwise, the attrition rate of Lieutenants and Captains a few years ago would not have been as worrisome to Pentagon manpower planners as it obviously was. Troops do not get to vote on who leads them.

Voters, however, do! General of the Army Omar Bradley, a five-star officer of WW11 fame, earned the nickname “The GI’s General.” His officers and men trusted him because he cared for them and earned their confidence in his judgment and in his decisions – right or wrong.

I have to believe that the President takes small comfort from his current standing on the issue of public confidence in his leadership or the direction of the country. Earning confidence is analogous to nurturing a garden, aging a delicate wine. Both require a process. Under the best of circumstances, outcomes in either case are not guaranteed.

It may be harsh judgment but the President forfeited the good will and trust of his supporters for almost three years while appeasing those who loathed him. He is reaping that whirlwind.

Loyalty has a price and it can be a bitter price to pay. The price for a politician can also include a degree of uncertainty regarding the level of support from his constituents. The new and improved, perhaps tougher Obama is a reflection of the degree of uncertainty he and his advisors feel. The recent transformation was literally overnight.

The President now negotiates with the Republicans from a position of weakness.

… Here’s why. Barring the probability of a loss of their majority in the House next year, the Republicans have rolled the dice: distort and obstruct the President at every turn because it works.

Also, the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill knows that the President and his party take their governance responsibilities seriously and, in the end, will, on major pieces of legislation, capitulate to avoid greater disaster. They are gambling on this. The Democrats, on the other hand, are just not comfortable engaging in trench warfare; their principles get in the way. Their supporters, however, are the inevitable battlefield casualties when the President and his team concede the field believing some governance, even bad governance, is better than none at all. This is sad, downright tragic commentary.

The only bright spot on the horizon for many of us is, again, Elizabeth Warren, the genuine article. Warren inspires confidence because she is a proven quantity. In an interview with Rachel Maddow at the outset of her Senate Campaign, Warren said she had no grand plan for her campaign; just a willingness to do what she has always done: fight for the consumer. We would have settled for that from the President.

No less than the future of the country is at stake in the next election. We hear that practically on a daily basis. The President brings that message to each fundraiser and town hall meeting he attends.

Here is a dinner-table discussion question: Will the threat the Republicans pose to that future (the fear factor) inspire the margin to win?

Or, will a resurgence of hope be the deciding factor? I suppose to the President, it does not matter. So, that’s where we are – negative inspiration on the road from 2008. What a fall from grace.

This does end well. President Obama’s negative inspiration now and his fall from grace are, I believe, positive realizations of his political growth which is building confidence in himself. We have that to look forward to.

George Kennedy

George Kennedy is a retired senior Foreign Service officer with extensive international experience. He holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon and two graduate degrees from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. Mr. Kennedy was a political advisor to state and federal officials and has authored strategy pieces for Members of Congress and presidential candidates. He serves on the Advisory Board for the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona.

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