"It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency -- that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. I have no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office."
- President Obama, State Of The Union January 12th 2016
In his last State Of The Union speech President Obama did two remarkable things. First, he owned up to failure and secondly he lead with questions not answers. It’s hard to remember the last time a politician, much less a president, owned failure. It speaks to a level of vulnerability that our modern politics doesn’t seem to tolerate. Of course, it helps that Obama isn’t running for office again.
The image of someone who is “presidential” isn’t far off from the image of a super hero. Someone strong and confident. Completely trustworthy and consistent. If you look at the rise of Donald Trump you see this prototype at work. He never questions himself, he is always right and no-one is as smart as him. His house of cards is built on a foundation of ego and hubris. You can almost see the cape drifting in the wind, connecting magically with his gravity defying hair.
This model of the “uber” president may have been what we needed in times past. And you can see a nostalgia for “real” America in many who recall, and idealize, leaders like Ronald Reagan. A president that shows strength in the face of the enemy (USSR). Of course Reagan was not that idealized man, he was much more complex.
So if you dig even slightly under the covers you begin to see a different story. Our greatest leaders are remembered as being great mostly because of one or two major accomplishments that outshine their many failures. Ending slavery, winning a war, bringing people out of poverty. They failed constantly and approached their role as leader of our country with great humility. Humility is not in fashion these days. Humility and vulnerability are seen as weaknesses. To be exploited by others.
But there is great strength in vulnerability. When a leader gets vulnerable those they lead start to feel safe, to be human and vulnerable themselves. It lays the foundation for real human interaction- which is a powerful change agent. So when Obama owned his failure to improve relations between the two parties he immediately made it safe for others to start talking again. Also, when he framed his address around 4 questions the nation must answer in the coming years he distributed ownership of the solutions. It was an implicit admission that he needs our help, that he didn't have the answers. It creates space to explore.
Obama’s State Of The Union was one of his finest moments. Of course, in the heat of presidential politics we've only heard discussion around his veiled critiques of Donald Trump- a bait too tasty for him to resist. I hope in time we will come back to those 4 questions, below, and begin to work together on their answers. I think they are the right questions to ask. I’m proud to have a president that was vulnerable enough to embrace his failures and humble enough to frame a future beyond his term.
I wish he’d gotten to this place sooner, it feels like Obama is finally getting his sea legs as a president. When you look at the cast of candidates on both sides of the aisle you don’t see anyone yet suited to fill his shoes. Not even Bernie Sanders.
Here are Obama’s 4 Questions:
1. How do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy?
2. How do we make technology work for us, and not against us, particularly for urgent challenges such as climate change?
3. How do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policemen?
4. How can we make our politics reflect the best of us, not the worst?