Monday, December 24, 2012

Obama's Christmas Vacation in Hawaii: Day 2

How President Barack Obama spent the second day of his Christmas vacation on Sunday in Hawaii:

— INOUYE FUNERAL: Obama and first lady Michelle Obama attended a memorial service for U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, sitting in the front row with Inouye's widow.

— PAYING RESPECTS: After the service, Obama briefly visited the grave of his grandfather, World War II veteran Stanley Dunham.

— HIKING: The first family went on a hike to Maunawili Falls, a popular, easy trail in Kailua near the Obamas' vacation home that leads to a waterfall and swimming hole.

Monday, December 17, 2012

How Obama seized the narrative

Barack Obama may finally be defining himself as president. The question is: What took him so long to seize the narrative and find his character as “leader.”

Obama now has strong public support in the fiscal crisis faceoff. Even as the House Republicans scramble to find a way into the argument, the president has a tight grip on the storyline.

This is a big change from the fierce healthcare reform fight and the 2011 debt limit crisis. The chattering class then continually asserted that Obama had “lost control of the narrative.”

But now the president has a strong narrative arc:  He is the protagonist who will stand up for what he believes in, battling the odds.

A dramatic character holds our attention based on what he wants—the “spine of a character” in a play is defined by a clear through-line of intention. For much of Obama’s first term, the American public — his audience — felt that he had lost his way.

The problem was that Obama, as president, had cast himself as consensus seeker or conciliator. This role took him out of the action of his own narrative.

Other characters were able to rush in to fill the narrative void. The contentious cast of Congress became the new focus of national attention. Obama, by deliberately sitting out the public debate on healthcare and letting Congress put together his signature legislation, lost sight of his goal.

This was surprising for many voters, who had been captured by the compelling drama of Obama’s 2008 campaign. As “candidate,” Obama understood his part was all about aspiration. His goal was clear — and there are built-in stations of conflict.

Obama’s personal story was so powerful, in fact, that he was able to vanquish a master of the narrative, Hilary Clinton. He skillfully defined himself as the brave, young combatant challenging a ruthless political machine.

Brash, bold and thrilling — Obama was the protagonist for a new American electorate. He reflected the character of a nation we wanted to be — diverse, young, hip and hopeful. Audacious.

But once the campaign’s dramatic arc was fulfilled, and Obama assumed the presidency, he did not have a new narrative to replace it.

Obama deliberately refused to put conflict on the table during the health care debate. He did not want to be defined as a fighter. The Republicans knew this—and maintained a one-sided battle, casting themselves as opponents willing to fight for their goals.

Obama lost more ground during the debt ceiling crisis. Rather than confront the opposition and the possibility of failure, conflict-weary Obama settled for a tired solution: He would agree to discuss it later.

In both these scenarios, it didn’t seem as if the dramatic stakes were high enough for Obama to take a risk. By playing the conciliator-in-chief, Obama created a role for himself that was fundamentally undramatic. He was no longer the star of his own narrative.

As his re-election neared, Obama continued to let the GOP define his leadership—even his back story. Birthers created an alternative-universe origin story for Obama, even accusing him of being part of a Manchurian Candidate-like socialist conspiracy. Obama had created the void that made room for this.

Meanwhile, a slew of Republican candidates were defining themselves. The GOP ultimately chose a nominee whose personal narrative was nimble enough to fit any prototype. Mitt Romney’s Etch-a-Sketch leadership qualities could fit any focus group.

Against this, Obama’s re-election campaign started without any new narrative. He could no longer use his 2008 aspirational language of “hope.” At best—he could attack Romney’s narrative.

A powerful surrogate finally gave Obama’s campaign its first real boost. Bill Clinton’s “comeback kid” narrative — crafted so carefully by his Hollywood pals — had served him through two campaigns, and also through the crises of his presidency. The narrative of “resiliency” is sometimes comic — but certainly always joyous, and fun to watch.

In Clinton’s final comeback, the former president ignited the Democratic National Convention in North Carolina. He presented a compelling new narrative line for Obama, focusing on his unfinished goals.
The turning point was in the first debate. The disengaged president conveyed the impression that he would rather be dining with his wife on their anniversary than addressing the electorate. The fatal question was raised: “Does he really want to be here?”

The failure of that first debate seemed to jar Obama into re-assuming a narrative he was comfortable with — as “candidate.”  The dramatic sense of conflict was back, the race was on and the audience (the American public) energized.

He was again aspiring to something. Even those monitoring the statistics on Nate Silver’s blog felt the nerve-shaking tension of Obama as underdog. This new dramatic tension was so palpable that many Republicans seemed genuinely shocked when they didn’t win.

Obama won the narrative because he fought for the presidency. It now looks as if he is willing to extend that clarity of intention into his second term.

With the fiscal cliff looming, Obama’s new narrative features taking on the Republicans and fighting over tax increases for the top 2 percent. The president  has embraced the drama of the ticking clock, which may make a showdown over the financial crisis as inevitable as the gunfight in High Noon.

Obama has found a way to extend his narrative into a template for leadership. He is again an audacious protagonist – and the focus of all our attention.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Obama laying groundwork for climate-change treaty

As leaders in Washington obsess about the fiscal cliff, President Barack Obama is putting in place the building blocks for a climate treaty requiring the first fossil-fuel emissions cuts from both the U.S. and China.
State Department envoy Todd Stern is in Doha, Qatar, this week working to clear the path for an international agreement by 2015. Though Obama failed to deliver on his promise to start a cap-and-trade program in his first term, he is working on policies that may help cut greenhouse gases 17% in 2020 in the U.S., historically the world's biggest polluter.

Obama has moved forward with greenhouse-gas rules for vehicles and new power plants, appliance standards and investment in low-emitting energy sources. He also has called for 80% of U.S. electricity to come from clean energy sources, including nuclear and natural gas, by 2035.

"The president is laying the foundations for real action on climate change," Jake Schmidt, who follows international climate policy for the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an interview in Doha. "Whether or not he decides to jump feet first into the international arena, we'll see."
Envoys from more than 190 nations are entering their second week of talks today at the United Nations conference working toward a global warming treaty. Their ambition is to agree to a pact in 2015 that would take force in 2020. It would supersede limits on emissions for industrial nations under the Kyoto Protocol, which the U.S. never ratified.

Obama's push is being pursued without fanfare as the administration and Congress grapple to avert a budget crisis and $607 billion in automatic spending cuts. Unlike 2009, when Obama failed to prevent the collapse of climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, the U.S. can point to more concrete actions it's taking to fight global warming.

Obama has more ammunition at hand. The Environmental Protection Agency is required under the Clean Air Act to move ahead with regulations on emissions from existing power plants. Those are responsible for about a third of U.S. emissions, the largest chunk.

Measures such as those, along with continued low natural gas prices and state actions, can cut emissions 16.3% by 2020, research firm Resources for the Future estimates. Emissions already are down 8.8% from 2005 levels, according to Jonathan Pershing, a State Department negotiator in Doha.

"The U.S. is in a much stronger position going into the Doha talks despite failure of Congress to pass comprehensive climate legislation," said Trevor Houser, a former U.S. climate negotiator who served during the Copenhagen meeting. "For countries like China that were able to hide behind a perception of U.S. inaction, the fact that U.S. emissions are falling helps increase pressure. It takes away the excuse that action is stalled because of the U.S."

A summer of extreme weather also is supporting the U.S. delegation in the talks by raising public awareness and concern about the risks of climate change, Pershing said last week in Doha. So far this year, superstorm Sandy devastated the East Coast while wildfires raged in the west and a record drought wrecked crops in the Midwest.

"The combination of those events is certainly changing the minds of Americans and making clear to people at home the consequences of the increased growth in emissions," he said at a Nov. 26 news conference in Doha.

The portion of Americans who say climate change will affect them a "great deal" or by a "moderate" amount rose by 13 percentage points to 42% from March to September, according to a poll by Yale University and George Mason University.