This level of GOP hostility is an image the president should keep firmly in his mind. Spring loaded to a hostile position is a frame and frame of mind he should stop to remember before meeting with any of that party's members.
The vote against paycheck fairness for women this week is a sign of what's to come -- and what's been going on. If they're willing to risk losing the votes of women, who handily helped President Obama to get where he is, then there is no doubt that the GOP is going for hostility all the way.
I've written about what it takes to operate in an arena of pathological politics. In such organizations, there's a fixed-pie mindset. It goes like this: Every piece of anything you get is one I don't. Negotiating with such people is a high order skill. It has nothing to do with bipartisan goals. Pathological groups are filled with maneuverers and street fighters, not purists and team players.
If indeed George Soros is starting to wonder why this talented president can't get much done, it is because he has underestimated the opposition and perhaps, though not surprising given the fanfare of his election, overestimated his team's ability to find a place where minds may meet to accomplish the will of the American people.
Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina received tough questions during his address Wednesday to the Democracy Alliance. There was frustration about the Republicans distorting what is going on, about "messaging" from Democrats and "the president not being more direct."
By now President Obama would be wise to consider that communication about what has been achieved is nearly as important as the achievements. Success engenders success. When we hear someone is doing great things, we want him to do more.
People don't learn about what goes on in Washington by osmosis. And "messaging" is a huge failure point right now with the Obama administration. It's almost as if they enjoy campaigning more than winning -- and are better at the first as well.
Research has shown that leaders have specialties in the change process. There are leaders who excel at coming up with the ideas, at reasoning through whether they'll work, ones whose specialty is implementation, or motivating and supporting people to adopt new ideas. Could it be that we elected people who specialize in idea generation and initial motivation, but can't find within themselves the expertise to implement and communicate?
In any case, the question is what to do about it? So here are a few tips I'd offer George Soros to convey to President Obama:
- Get a grip on the type of people you're dealing with and keep that firmly in mind. It's a pathological environment, not a garden party. The GOP is spring loaded to hostility and pumped up by taking over the House.
- They have the upper hand in framing right now too. They've already positioned themselves as winners and Democrats as losers even though Democrats are in the majority in the Senate and the president is a Democrat. Change the frame.
- Reciprocate civility with civility, even lead with it, but incivility calls for a response that makes them think twice next time. We're all at least 75 percent responsible for how we're treated by other people, but we abdicate this if we're stuck with the same responses -- what one friend described to me as "a sense that the president is packaged."
- Stop being predictable. When people are predictable in the way they respond or attack an issue, they're easily managed.
- Stop with folksy phrases like "Well look" and "The Folks are thinking;" and step into what you have to say with a directness that will be taken seriously. We're not talking here about a steady diet of aggressiveness, but the opposite is losing respect needed to get things done and to win again.
- Develop a repertoire of ways to make assertions without equivocation or apology. For example, whenever possible drop "I think" and disclaimer comments (e.g., "I don't want people to take this the wrong way, but...."), they weaken responses and lessen persuasiveness. "I think we're witnessing a GOP assault on the middle class" loses the deserved impact. If we're seeing this, we are seeing it! So say, "We're witnessing a GOP frontal assault on the middle class."
- It's rare that hostile people respect generosity of spirit in conversation. Save useful, considerate comebacks like "I can see why you see it that way," "We've worked well to this point, no use changing course now," and "I'm sure we have more in common than not" for negotiations with collaborative people or situations where conflict and confrontation can be avoided.
You only need to read the tone and word choice in President Obama's response to the knock down of the Paycheck Fairness Act to see what is wrong with the "messaging."
I've spent my career finding ways for people who disagree to reach agreement, but not in situations where one side has nothing but antipathy for the other. Here the tactics are different and they start with strong evidence that you are not going to keep being all sweetness and light while they plan your career demise.
Those who say it isn't all communication are right. It isn't. But leadership is as much about communication as it is about ideas. And from what we read yesterday, George Soros and other huge supporters of the president know this.
Millions of people still want this president to succeed no matter how angry they are at him. I'd like to see it too. And, there may still be time. But continued long diatribes with no passion, assertiveness and spontaneity in the face of GOP hostility are going to make this presidency a short, disappointing one. And the greatest shame will be that it didn't have to be that way.