Advancing a Free Society

Back To School For This President?

Sunday, May 19, 2013

In 1992, Queen Elizabeth had a yearlong run of personal woe that she famously likened to an annus horribilis. And horrible it was: two princes’ and one princess’s marriages going up in flames; even Windsor Castle catching fire.

We still have seven-plus months before 2013 plays out, but so far so bad for President Obama in this, the first of his last four years in the Oval Office. Which begs the question of who or what’s to blame for this presidency going from the high of a sweeping re-election to the valley of scandal and unshakable controversy – the Benghazi affair that won’t go away, IRS heavy-handing with tax-exempts, Justice Department record-seizing.

What should we chalk it up to?

1) The inevitable fate of second-term presidents (George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon all hitting rough patches after their re-elections)?

2) Mr. Obama’s lack of preparation – scant leadership experience – for the job?

3) Much ado but nothing, the assumption being a friendly media will build Obama back up once they’re done treating his administration as a chew toy?

4) Bad karma in the personage of Michelle Obama and her bangs – the new hairstyle she broke out just in time for her 49th birthday a precursor to this spate of political misfortune.

Forget about the bangs (the First Lady already has, reverting to her side-swept look). And the last thing the White House should complain about is critical press coverage. As for a second-term curse, let’s see where this White House stands going into 2016 and its last year.

The concern here is culprit #2 – Obama’s lack of preparation – i.e., no history of running anything, other than running for office.

In early 2008, 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft posed it thus: "I mean, one of the problems that you have, still, is the question of experience. And you've done a lot of remarkable things in your life. But when you sit down and you look at the résumé - there's no executive experience. And, in fact, correct if I'm wrong, the only thing that you've actually run was the Harvard Law Review."

Obama’s response: "Well, I've run my Senate office. And I've run this campaign. One of the interesting things about this experience argument is that it's often posed as just a function of longevity. You know, 'I've been here longer.' Well, you know there are a lot of companies that have been around longer than Google . . . but Google's performing."

Not that Obama’s stock is as strong as Google’s in this bull market. If anything, post-election Obama has been the political equivalent of Apple, which has fallen nearly 40% since its all-time high last September.

What, then, should Mr. Obama do?

Here’s a thought: forget sequester, think semester.

Starting this fall, President Obama should take a break from the job. Invoke the 25th Amendment, declare yourself temporarily unavailable to do the job, and let Joe Biden run the country for a few months. Not that the Vice President can’t carry the load– or so he believes. Biden’s told interviewers he spends “four to five hours a day . . . every day” with Obama.

What then to do with the presidential time-out? Go back to Harvard, where Obama received his law degree. That’s not meant as an excuse for the President to hang out at the Institute of Politics or the Kennedy School of Government, thus surrounding himself with people who already see the world the way he does (being surrounded by too many White House enablers may be one of this presidency’s problems). The same goes for a return to the safe harbor of Harvard Law School – the legal education did its job in making Obama an effective orator.

The challenge for Obama isn’t honing his speechmaking skills. It’s learning managerial skills. And for that, the answer lies on the opposite side of the Charles River and the Harvard Business School, which ironically produced the man Obama replaced and the man who sought to replace him (actually, Mitt Romney holds a Harvard J.D./M.B.A.).

A quick look through HBS’ elective curriculum shows courses that could benefit a President struggling with the demands of a taxing executive post.

That would include:

1) Authentic Leadership Development. Among the course’s stated objectives: “To understand why leaders lose their way and the self-awareness needed to avoid derailment . . . To gain clarity about their leadership principles, values, and ethical boundaries, and how they will respond under pressure when severely challenged.”

2) The Role of Government in Market Economies. “The goal of this course is to deepen your insight into and influence on the debate over economic policy. Private-sector managers are better able to position their organizations, both defensively and offensively, if they understand why and how governments act.”

3) Deals. “Topics developed throughout the course include: how negotiators create and claim value through the setup, design, and tactical implementation of agreements; complexities that can arise through agency, asymmetric information, moral hazard, and adverse selection; structural, psychological, and interpersonal barriers that can hinder agreement; and the particular challenges inherent in the roles of advisors as negotiators.”

4) Negotiation. “This course will teach you how to analyze, prepare for, and execute negotiations at a sophisticated level-through actions both at and away from the bargaining table. It will give you the opportunity to enhance your strengths as a negotiator and to shore up your weaknesses.

Finally, since the President might entertain the thought of life in the private sector (an attractive lifestyle, when it’s in California venues like these), HBS offers:

Venture Capital and Private Equity. “The course focuses on the "private equity cycle," and starts by considering how private equity funds are raised and structured, with attention paid to the differing perspectives and incentives of institutional investors, "gatekeepers," fund-of-fund managers, and private equity investors.”

Incumbent presidents tend to avoid college campuses unless it’s to deliver a commencement address or rally the youth vote. As for post-presidential visits, those tend to be opening libraries or reflecting on past decisions.

The time-out from gridlocked Washington and time-in at an elite business school – sequester to semester – might be the refresher Mr. Obama needs.

Besides, what better way to get folks to start liking you again than these four scary words: acting President Joe Biden.


Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter: @hooverwhalen