Published on September 1, 2012 on CNN.com
Editor’s note: Marty Linsky is the co-founder and principal ofCambridge Leadership Associates and has been a member of the faculty at the Harvard Kennedy School for 30 years, teaching and writing about leadership. He served as Chief Secretary and Counselor to Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld and was a three-term Republican state legislator. His latest book, co-authored with Ronald Heifetz and Alexander Grashow, is “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership.”
(CNN) — To his credit, Mitt Romney has framed the question just about right.
On Thursday night he said:
“How many days have you woken up feeling that something really special was happening in America? Many of you felt that way on Election Day four years ago. Hope and change had a powerful appeal. But tonight I’d ask a simple question: If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn’t you feel that way now that he’s President Obama? You know there’s something wrong with the kind of job he’s done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him. The president hasn’t disappointed you because he wanted to.”
Romney cannot win unless thousands of people who voted for Obama four years ago abandon him in November.
Obama cannot win by asking people if they are better off now than they expected to be four years ago.
For most Americans, myself included, that is surely not the case. The expectations for Obama, again mine included, were so off-the-charts as to be unachievable.
Nevertheless, we reveled in the fantasy.
And it was a fantasy.
How could Obama possibly have accomplished much more than he did, given the complexity of the problems, the little power the president has over either the world situation or the domestic economy, and, of course, the deep commitment the Republicans voiced from the beginning of his term to deny him any progress that required congressional support?
(The GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell was clear. In the run-up to the 2010 election he said: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” He was candid at least, defeating Obama was more important to him than, say, making progress on the economic challenges facing the country or the seemingly intractable disputes in the Middle East.)
Obama himself began to understand this dilemma near the end of the 2008 campaign. He began to talk about the multiple, unreachable and sometimes conflicting dreams and hopes that the electorate had put on him, a process with which he had readily colluded in his quest for power.
So, from day one of his presidency, the challenge for Obama was not what he could accomplish, but whether he could do the tough work of leadership. In two dramatic cases, he showed he could — launching the risky mission that killed Osama bin Laden and plowing ahead with the comprehensive health care bill after Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts.
The work of getting elected is about pandering to your own people, telling them what they want to hear. Obama in 2008 and Romney in 2012 have pandered with the best of them, albeit with different approaches.
Obama pandered by talking about his aspirations so abstractly (“hope and change”) that everyone could believe he was talking to them individually. Romney did it by taking any position on any issue that the Republican base wanted to hear, regardless of whether it was consistent with his past views or made any sense.
The work of leadership is about telling your own people the hard truths they need to hear or, to say it more sharply, disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb.
Romney is counting on the possibility that the inevitable disappointment in Obama that many people feel and the gap between their always unrealistic expectations and the hard realities are so large that he can wean enough of them away and sneak into the White House where if he and Paul Ryan really try to wrestle with the tough issues they, too, will repeat the same syndrome, disappointing their own people at a rate they can absorb.
The advantage that the Romney/Ryan team will have over Obama is the expectations for them will be so low that the inevitable disappointment will be much less four years from now.