One of the striking things that this week’s elections forcefully represent is the dramatic erosion of trust in President Obama. Two years ago he hadn’t yet earned our confidence, but he did inspire deep trust. Our frustration with his leadership has not just been disappointment with specific policies that haven’t worked. The frustration and the anger seem also to come from a feeling of betrayal — feeling that we trusted the wrong guy. The elections don’t really show any movement to “the right guys.” They just demonstrate a vacuum of trust — the triumph of suspicion.
This can be fixed. Here are three things Obama can do that would help.
1. Show you understand. For all the smarts of the team, for all the capacity for soaring rhetoric, the administration became consistently associated with being out of touch. The notion that Obama is an elitist isn’t just a phony charge drummed up by mean-spirited attack ads. The appearance of elitism comes from a sense that the president’s team “just doesn’t get it,” that they are insensitive to the plight of ordinary Americans.
This can be fixed. The president and his team must rediscover their abilities to connect with people who are suffering from the systemic economic dislocations of the last few years. This will mean articulating priorities that resonate with the visceral concerns of the millions of people who feel that their economic futures are doomed to steady decline.
2. Show you are competent. When I was in Washington recently, I heard some members of the administration complain that people hadn’t really understood how bad things were when they came to office. One told me that trying to fix the economy was like arriving at a party at which people had been drinking for days: all the party-goers were sick and intoxicated, and yet one had to work with them to set things right. The health-care bill, financial reform, saving the entire banking system from ruin — these were major accomplishments, saving us from a much deeper national catastrophe. But despite the fact that the deeper catastrophe was averted, few were giving the administration credit for that because things are still so bad for so many.
The lesson of these elections is that when you own the problem, as the Obama administration did when it took office, you have to provide more tangible evidence that you are competent to fix it. It’s not enough to say that things would have been a lot worse without us. Health-care reform and financial reform were major long-term accomplishments, but the only thing that will matter in the next two years is visible progress on jobs.
This can be fixed. Visible efforts at job creation and consistent attention to the plight of the unemployed will make a difference in how much trust we put in the competence of the administration. Creating jobs without spending money is impossible, and the administration must continue to emphasize this basic fact as it comes to terms with the new realities of the Republican Congress.
3. Show you have the grit to get the job done no matter how much work is required. The president’s perceived aloofness and his deliberate style, even in crises, have been understood as a lack of engagement. An essential element in any successful leader these days is the willingness to work as hard as his or her followers. Whom do we usually trust outside our families? We trust our teammates when they play hard alongside us, our co-workers when we know they are doing their share of the job, our neighbors when we stand shoulder-to-shoulder to get something done.
This can be fixed. President Obama can begin to reweave the fabric of trust with more of the American people when we can see how his concerns are our concerns, that his work is our work. He can restore confidence in his capacities if he shows he understands the most pressing problems in the economy, displays competence in dealing with them, and demonstrates the work ethic to get things done.
There is plenty of time for President Obama, politically speaking. But there is very little time for those living with economic catastrophe. We might be tempted to throw up our hands or just display contempt for any possible improvement in American public life. That would be a disaster for the country. We need understanding, competent and hardworking leadership right now. We need our president to earn back our trust.