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We need less No-Drama Obama and more Barry Oh!

Jan 09, 2011 Leadership, Sunday Nation

Isn’t it time we Kenyans gave Barack Obama a mid-term report? We take a special interest in his presidency, after all.

Two years ago I waxed entirely lyrical about Obama’s ascendancy to the world’s top job. That a black man, with Kenyan origins to boot, had made it so high was indeed cause for celebration and reason for hope. Along with most of the world, I had huge belief in this remarkable man.

Two years later I can only admit to disenchantment. The man with the booming oratory, with the superb campaign machine, with the sharp intelligence – he cuts a lesser figure these days. It is in fact hard to tell what he stands for, what his leadership brand is, what we should still hope for from him.

Some of that is not surprising. Obama inherited the worst economic mess of a generation, and came in at a time when the biggest US banks were falling and the world economy had flown off a cliff. On the economic front, he was bound to struggle – anyone would have. And of course conservative America was bound to recoil against this ‘stranger’ in the White House, and deploy all the snide innuendo and guerilla warfare that we have observed.

But even allowing for the very tough situation in which he found himself, I think Obama has let himself down. There are two elementary mistakes of leadership I suggest he has committed.

The first is in the team of key people he put in place around him. It is easy to forget now: Obama’s campaign theme was CHANGE. America was broken, he told us: its economy, its businesses, its values were bust – and he was just the man to give us “change we could believe in.” So what did he do as soon as he assumed office? He retained key members of his predecessor’s economic team, and brought in others who had been senior figures in recent administrations.

Now that’s partly understandable. When the world economy is in worse shape than anyone can remember, and what happens next is highly uncertain, a man can be forgiven for playing safe, for leaning on experienced figures. Particularly when you have no high-level executive or economic experience yourself.

But your entire leadership brand is supposed to scream CHANGE! You are supposed to bring in new brooms and instil new ideas. You are supposed to throw out the old and usher in the new. If you deploy the very same people who presided over the economic mess you came in to clean up, the results will be predictable. Big banks were protected, vested interests preserved, business as usual perpetuated. Obama could have bitten the bullet and done something radical, something transformational, something risky…but he didn’t.

The second leadership failing is even more serious: presiding over the dilution of his own brand. Whatever the heck you thought of George W. Bush, you were never in any doubt about what he stood for! He was as conservative, militaristic and jingoistic as they come – but he told you that and showed it in every action. What, on the other hand, is Obama all about? What’s his core value system? Where do the boundaries lie?

I put it to you that we just don’t know anymore. All we can see is a calm, composed, calculating figure who weighs every situation on its merits and comes to considered compromises. That may be thoughtful, but it ain’t leadership.

We are not asking Barack Obama to turn into some kind of thoughtless zealot who makes visceral utterances at every turn. That’s not him. But a leader does need to transmit core values and firm boundaries to his followers. They need to know what he stands for, and where he just won’t go.

So come on, let’s have less No-Drama Obama and more Barry Oh! Breathe fire, Barack, and tell it like it should be. Shout out in unmeasured words what you’re all about, and show it in every decision. Reclaim your change agenda. Tell those Tea Party fruitcakes where to get off. Be radical and make a real difference. Kick the wheels afresh and stamp your authority. You can do it – yes, you still can.

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