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Richard C. Harwood

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Obama's 'Bulworth Moment'

Posted: 05/29/2013 12:41 pm

President Obama reportedly told close aides that he wants to "Go Bulworth." The implication: tell people like it is rather than engage in more focus group-tested politics. Here's what I hope the president would say, especially in light of recent 'scandals.'

The president's reference is to the hilarious 1998 movie, Bulworth, which starred Warren Beatty, who decided in the throes of his U.S. Senate race in California to tell voters what he really thought.

Two points of context about reality (and not a movie) are worth noting: First, it's clear the nation is at a political impasse. A May 1 New York Times article lays out this dilemma in reporting on a recent New York Times/CBS News Poll, which highlighted Americans' agreement on issues such as background checks for gun buyers and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. But it also shows the country is split over whom to trust in acting on such issues: the president or Congressional Republicans. The second piece of context comes from my own research conversations with Americans, in which people revealed that the No. 1 issue in the nation is the need to restore people's belief that we can come together to get things done.

Clearly, these two points are at odds, but they don't need to be. When taken together, they raise the all-important question: What could the president do if he 'went Bulworth' that would be effective? Here are five starting points:

1) The president needs to articulate a clear sense of where the country is and why it is so difficult to solve problems right now. This can't be about finger-pointing or partisan blame, but rather an honest appraisal of where things stand and why. People need a sense of coherence about what's happening around them, a way to make sense of it, and a leader who seeks to genuinely respond to it. Without this context, and posture, the president will continue to live in the land of politics as usual.

2) The president must be crystal clear that he will get to the bottom of recent scandals and hold people accountable. This requires two things on his part which have not been clear thus far: that he "owns" these problems (as opposed to suggesting he "didn't know" or they're part of the bureaucracy) and that decisive action will be taken if required. Without this, he will be perceived simply as playing more politics as usual, which nullifies point No. 1 above. This is a key threshold he must meet.

3) Moreover, the president must clearly and assertively lay out his own thinking when he believes others do not see or understand his point of view. Here's why: in terms of helping the country move forward, people want to know where a leader stands and that the leader is willing to take a stand. When they do, people are more likely to trust that leader even if they disagree with him (or her). Here, again, if the country is to move forward, the president must take the risk of stepping forward.

4) The president should declare that he will focus on a number of issues that are actionable, achievable and affordable. What's important here is restoring people's belief that something can get done. He then needs to celebrate victories without gloating or claiming personal credit -- instead, he must show why these achievements are important to begin moving the country forward and restoring people's belief that progress is possible.

5) The president must be both tough and accommodating. He must draw clear lines in the sand about acrimonious and divisive political behaviors that undermine the health of the country, and yet he must also reach out and build stronger relationships. This will require less campaign-like political posturing and more statesman-like engagement.

For the president, or any real-life leader, to "Go Bulworth" is not about becoming a reckless flame-thrower. Neither in today's reality can a leader afford to take a romantic, sentimental view of public life and politics, nor simply hope that "we can all get along." The Bulworth Moment is to stand up and fight politics as usual, always looking for openings to demonstrate that we can get things done together.

-- Richard C. Harwood is president of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. He is a nationally recognized expert in the fields of public innovation and community change and recently facilitated the unanimous decision on the fate of Sandy Hook Elementary, where 26 children and adults were killed in December 2012. Harwood is the author of The Work of Hope: How Individuals & Organizations Can Authentically Do Good.

 

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