Lesson #1: Define Yourself Before Others Do

The agenda has been ambitious.

Jobs.  Homeland security.  Iraq.  Afghanistan.  Healthcare.  Energy.  Banking.   

Taken together, the Obama Presidency has all the makings of a compelling story — action, adventure, emotion, suspense, and intrigue — but it seems to be lacking a key component:  a narrative.

Despite a decidedly progressive – and I would suggest laudable – list of policy initiatives, the Obama Presidency seems to be lacking a unifying theme … an organizing principle … an overarching rationale … a stake in the ground.   To the average person, each issue is seemingly pursued for its own sake. Each issue often appears to be addressed in isolation of the others.  And each issue is often spoken about in technocratic terms – generally devoid of any emotion, devoid of any interconnectedness, and devoid of any discussion of a “big picture”.   

During the presidential campaign, candidate Obama tapped into something deep and visceral.  Americans wanted change – new leadership, new direction, and new hope – and Obama was ready, willing and able to deliver.  He spoke about change.  He promised change.  He embodied change.  And people of all political stripes – Democrat, Republican and Independent – gravitated toward him.

To be sure, some were frustrated by a perceived lack of specifics about the candidate’s views on individual issues and about their inability to fit him neatly into a box.  Was he liberal?  Was he moderate?  In the end, it didn’t matter.  “Change” was the mantra, and all knew – and most liked – what candidate Obama represented. 

Since his election, President Obama has shifted his focus – commendably – from politics to policy as he has sought to tackle the nation’s problems.   His political adversaries, however, have not followed suit.  Rather, many of them have maintained their focus on the politics of personal destruction and have sought to define the President in less-than-flattering terms.  In this, they have been relentless … they have been unified … and they have been successful.   Many in the media – not just those in the right-wing echo chamber at Fox News – have seemingly bought into the Republican definition of the Obama Presidency and have been marching in lockstep with the Republican playbook.

As a result, the President’s agenda has been somewhat overshadowed.

This unfortunate point has become an increasingly popular topic of conversation.  Columnist Tom Friedman recently spoke to this issue, noting that “More and more lately, I find people asking me:  What do you think President Obama really believes about this or that issue.”  To explain this phenomenon, Friedman concludes, the President “has a narrative problem.  He has not tied all his programs into a single narrative that shows the links” between his policies.   

And a problem it is.

Communication 101 teaches that if you don’t define yourself, someone else will … and I can promise you, not in the way that you want to be defined.  Leadership requires a narrative.  The best policies and the best speeches will not – on their own – move people to act in a certain way, particularly if a certain level of personal sacrifice is involved.  There needs to be a larger plan and a greater sense of purpose.  There needs to be – in the words of former President George H. W. Bush – “the vision thing”.

For President Obama, this should be easy.   When it comes to communications, he excels at it.  When it comes to policy, he is skilled at it.  And when it comes to America, he gets it more than most people.  He just needs to better package his Presidency – his proposals, speeches and activities – into something that resonates with the American people and that answers the big question — Why?  Why healthcare reform?  Why a stimulus package?  Why bank restructuring?  Why ALL of these proposals together?  And why now?

In just the few short weeks since the Massachusetts election, the President has demonstrated his uncanny ability to take command of challenging situations.  He has already reclaimed the bully-pulpit … changed the national dialogue … and begun to better define his presidency.  His voice is louder.  His message is stronger.  And his vision is clearer.

In other words, President Obama now seems ready and eager to narrate the next great chapter in American history.

Michael W. Kempner is the President/CEO of MWW Group ( www.mww.com ), a Top Ten National Public Relations Firm and an Operating Advisor for Pegasus Capital. Lesson #1: Define Yourself Before Others Do