Obama’s Challenge, by Robert Kuttner

Not sure why I picked this up — have been thinking a bunch about what it means to lead, how to do it, what responsibilities are. This is an interesting & useful book — I got a lot out of reading it.

[As a first disclaimer: obviously, a lot is happening now with both the stimulus package and Obama’s proposed budget. I don’t pretend to understand most of it. The stimulus seems, to me, to be the right thing to do given the current recession. The budget is more complicated and has farther reaching implications. I’m generally in favor of universal health care, don’t mind paying higher taxes, and think the overall focus on energy, education & health is right on. But the size of the deficits and the accumulated debt do worry me a lot.]

Anyway, what I liked about this book, written before Obama was actually elected, is that Kuttner goes through some presidents that didn’t just triangulate public opinion, but changed the nature of the US, the way we talked and thought about our obligations. Here are a few good quotes:

“As Doris Kearns Goodwin observes, all of the great presidents used their leadership first to transform the public understanding of national challenges and then to break through impasses made up of congressional blockage, interest-group power, voter cynicism or passivity, and conventional wisdom. In different ways, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson found allies, respectively, in the abolitionist movement, the labor movement, and the civil rights movement, as well as the press and the general public. Each president grew immensely in office. Each changed the national mood, then the direction of national policy.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the challenge for Obama. Said another way:

“Obama will need to be a more radical president than he was a presidential candidate. Radical does not mean outside the mainstream. It means perceiving, as a leader, that radical change is necessary, discerning tacit aspirations and unmet needs in the people, and then making that radical change the mainstream view for which people clamor.”

There will be lots of debate, questioning, and argument about where the US should go — that’s good & right, and should happen. That it happen in a transparent & open way is crucial, and I think that that’s happening, irrespective of any particular policies in the first 60 days.

But a long way to go, so we’ll see what happens — in any event, this book helped me think through the challenge of leading from the Oval Office, and the opportunity as well.


  1. hhmmm… he can do it.. with the support of many.. don’t underestimate his capacity..

  2. Having not let the big banks and insurances die (which mostly means go bankrupt and be sold off to others, possibly in smaller chunks) and instead pumping lots of money into them, saving the insurances instead of the insured, this is the first missed radical change of this term. He would have turned from someone I disagree with to a political hero for me if he would have enough courage to save the public instead of the large companies, lobbies and managers. I doubt he’ll turn around and become radical in reality for the first time in his life.

  3. It was a very interesting article