Why President Obama May Lose

During a political strategy session for candidate Bill Clinton, back in 1992 James Carvell ardently reminded those in the room that “it’s the economy Stupid.” The statement recognized a fact so simple and irrefutable, that even a stupid person should get it – people vote their pocketbook.

When Carville made his now-famous remark, during the final weeks of the presidential race against George H.W. Bush, the economy was chugging along at 3%, having recovered from a recession ended in March of 1991. The economy would finish the year out with an increase of 3.6%, but President Bush would not survive his challenger’s effective attacks on the ‘poor’ economy.

Today, our government surprised economists by announcing that US GDP rose 2%, better than economists’ projections of 1.8%, and considerably better than last quarter’s 1.3%. Now you will notice that if 3% in 1992 was a ‘poor’ economy, what about 2%? If it really is ‘the economy Stupid,’ how is it that President Obama continues to do so well against Governor Mitt Romney, especially given that voters trust Romney 50% to 43% over Obama on the economy, according to Rasmussen?

I am no political strategist, but I’m going to take a stab at answering this vexing question anyway – for what it’s worth. In some of the past few Briefs I’ve referred  to the ‘why’ of organizations and of people. The idea that why we do something should guide and direct the what and how we do. Author Simon Sinek explains that all people and organizations know what they do, a few know how they do it, but very few indeed know why they do what they do.

Sinek provides some examples of the importance of why for an organization or leader. When Sam Walton started Wal-Mart he was driven by a deeper purpose or belief. He believed in people and that if he looked after people, they would look after him. Walton organized his company around a simple, yet profound why – to serve the community.

But in time Sam’s ‘why’ of Wal-Mart became fuzzy. After his death his cause was not clearly handed down. Professional managers became more focused on profits, the ‘hows’ and ‘whats’ they’ were doing. They lost sight of ‘why’ they were doing it. They became all about ‘cheap’ and not about their employees or community. You know the rest of the story. A company once renowned for the way it treated its employees fell prey to endless scandals relating to the treatment of employees, customers and suppliers.

There are plenty of other examples of companies that lost their why. America Online became a tech darling when they offered unlimited Internet access to their customers, offering electronic mail, online chat, and the budding World Wide Web to its customers. Their why was clearly to get America online. Having an @aol.com address meant that you belonged to an elite tech-savy family. But eventually the competition caught up and AOL’s why became fuzzy. Today the company plods along on little more than the momentum of a large, but shrinking mass.

Four years ago our country was at war on two fronts – Afghanistan and Iraq, we had just suffered a massive financial crisis, an historic stock market collapse, and we were entering what would be the worst recession since the Great Depression. Americans were scared and they were looking for leadership, inspirational leadership.

An unknown young African American senator from Illinois who spoke passionately and eloquently about his why rose from obscurity like a rocket through the primaries and into the presidential race against Republican challenger John McCain. In everything he said and did, Barak Obama exuded his purpose of “Change” in Washington.

Change sounded good to Americans who were sick of war, recession, Wall Street, and declining pay and jobs. Politicians and celebreties alike had relentlessley criticized President Bush for years which was eagerly magnified by the media. Budget deficits and government spending seemed out of control and politics in Washington were ugly and broken. Obama’s why for change inspired Democrats, Independents, and more than a few Republicans. He had started a movement – a movement for change in Washington, and for America.

Candidate Obama promised change in Washington from its rancorous tone, he promised to seek compromise through respect and he promised to get things done for the middle class. An inspired electorate catapulted him into office with the huge benefits of a mandate and Democratic control of both Congressional houses.

Simon Sinek warns that the biggest challenge to why is success and that to remain successful the ‘how’ and ‘what’ must flow from and support the ‘why.’ With the country reeling from recession and high unemployment President Obama became singularly focused on his vision for healthcare. Ultimately he would empower Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to force through Congress the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The process (or lack of it) embittered Republican legislators who were completely ignored.

The bill was so unpopular with Americans that they voted their pocketbooks in the 2008 mid-term elections. In the House, 60 Democrats were tossed out, unseating Nancy Pelosi as Speaker, and in the Senate, six Democrats lost their seats, narrowing Harry Reid’s majority to 53 – 47.

American voters were clear in their disapproval of ‘how’ and ‘what’ President Obama did during his first two years and they would see little in the next two to alter their views. Politics got worse instead of better and the economy continued to languish, creating few jobs.

Once Mitt Romney was nominated by his party, many expected the polling to swing away from the president. But remarkably, Mr. Obama persistently lead Mr. Romney during most of the election cycle. His supporters continued to believe in his ‘why’ because it was their ‘why.’ They wanted a better America and they believed Mr. Obama expressed their hopes better than Mr. Romney did, regardless of the economic or political facts to the contrary. Why is one of the most powerful forces on the planet. Clear messaging of his why was Mr. Obama’s strength in 2008, but it has become his weakness in 2012. His why has become fuzzy.

Four weeks ago the tide of this election dramatically shifted. It happened on a stage in Denver Colorado the night of the first debate. It was obvious to anyone watching that Mr. Romney knew why he was there and Mr. Obama did not. More importantly, for the first time many Americans were introduced to Mr. Romney’s why (unfiltered by ads or the media), and they liked it.

Surprised by the sudden change in momentum by Romney’s inspirational ‘Believe in America,’ the Obama campaign chose to go not with their strengths of clearly and passionately stating their ‘why’ , but rather with petty attacks and not-so-cute word jabs. What’s all the more striking is, they allowed Mr. Romney to usurp their own message of change.

In a speech to be delivered in Iowa today Mr. Romney will say “this election is a choice between the status quo and change, change from the course of the last four years. It requires that we put aside the small and the petty, and demand the scale of change we deserve: we need real change, big change.” He will also say “confronting the problems that politicians have avoided for over a decade, revitalizing our competitive economy, modernizing our education, restoring our founding principles. This is the kind of change that promises a better future, one shaped by men and women pursuing their dreams in their own unique ways.”

That is a powerful ‘why’ statement. Whether Mr. Romney’s vision for America aligns with yours or not, Mr. Romney has probably hit his message stride with enough time and with enough momentum to give a sitting president with an approval rating of 51% a run for his money. This will likely be one for the books.