Monday, January 18, 2010

It's Time for Audacity, Mr. President

Originally posted at Huffington Post here

Mr. President,

Let me begin by saying how much I appreciate you. Your clarity, integrity, honesty, and commitment to service are all deeply admirable. You are an extraordinarily thoughtful and noble man and we are fortunate that you have chosen to offer your considerable gifts in service to America. I was moved enough to travel to D.C. to celebrate your inauguration with the millions of others on the Mall.

But I’ve been feeling for some time that something has been missing from your presidency. The magic of your campaign has gone dormant, leading a steady stream of my allies to become disenchanted. Perhaps some of this is inevitable when you face challenges on the scale that you inherited and people must reset their expectations of how much change you can truly bring. Governing is a less glorious business than winning primaries.

Yet I can’t help but think that there’s a secret ingredient that made your candidacy so exhilarating that can breathe life, power, and dazzle back into your presidency. And that quality is the one both you and campaign manager David Plouffe named in your book titles: audacity. You offered not just the mantra of change to America but an audacious high-wire act to create the largest grassroots political movement in history. Your sheer boldness made us believe again that change was possible.

It took extraordinary audacity for a freshman senator of mixed race and a foreign-sounding name to even attempt a run for the Presidency against a formidable Clinton machine. Time and again, you took the big risks, from a complex overseas trip in the middle of the campaign to an historic speech on race in the middle of the Reverend Wright controversy. In Plouffe’s book Audacity to Win, he notes that when the campaign took big risks in alignment with its core principles, it was rewarded in remarkable ways. When it became complacent or conservative, things started to go flat. You would miss your stride, falter in debates, and the campaign would go in the wrong direction. The core DNA that created the magic was audacity. After an era of lowered expectations, diminished hope, and a cramped quality to the American spirit, you offered us a liberation of our creative energy and an expanded sense of our potential.

That audacity needs to return now. You have shown that you can be a balanced, thoughtful, pragmatic president and strong executive. You have calmly managed many crises. However, we didn’t elect you just to do an excellent job of being America’s CEO, governing our affairs thoughtfully. We elected you to be America’s visionary in chief – helping us to lift our vision, expand our sense of possibility, and dream big again. We elected you to help us remember who we are as a people and to dare us to become great again.

I could chronicle many moments of your first year that called for audacity but which were met with a more tepid pragmatism instead. The one that stands out for me was your Nobel Peace Prize speech, which can best be described as an exceptionally well-reasoned argument for the necessity of war. It was a moment that called for boldness – announcing a Dept. of Peace, rallying the citizens of the world to end violent conflict in our lifetimes, or calling us all to take personal pledges of non-violence. You could have done for peace what Kennedy did with the space program. Instead, you took the path of lowered expectations and cool pragmatism.

That is not the audacity we saw in you. I recall a moment when you traveled to Iraq to visit the troops during the campaign and you calmly nailed a three-point basketball shot, leading them to go wild. That was you in the campaign – blowing past expectations, taking the risky shot. As president, you have not been stretching beyond yourself in the same way. The Peace Prize speech was a lay-up in a moment that called for a three-pointer.

Part of my theory for why your audacity has been dormant is that you no longer have a formidable competitor. Obama the candidate was literally forced by Clinton to bring out his best, to take big risks, to stretch beyond himself time and again. It’s clear from your memoir that you have a fiery competitive streak beneath the surface and a seemingly invincible opponent brought out your best. More studious pragmatism in the campaign would have given you nothing but a quick trip back to the Senate. It had to be game on, played with all the heart, intensity, passion, and power you could muster.

As President, you no longer have a clear competitor. You wield more power than any other man in the world. The trap is for you to lose your inspirational edge, diminish your boldness and continue only with the cool, pragmatic, bridge-building demeanor that is your default mode. Perhaps you need to compete with the great presidents of history. Or with a still-higher vision of yourself. But something needs to force you to dig deep again to find your essence and share it powerfully, vulnerably, and memorably with the American people.

It’s imperative because you not only have great political power, you have great psychological power. If you lower expectations of what can be done with your political power, you contribute to lowering expectations for what all Americans can do.

You have now had a year to learn to do a good job with all the functions of President. Now we need your unique genius to return. And that is the audacity to dream seemingly impossible dreams. Give us a moonshot, something that we can look back on with pride, something that helps us transcend ourselves and our perceived limitations. Give us something bigger than moderate health care reforms or strategic military surges. We don’t want mere artful compromises or well-reasoned justifications for the path of moderation. We want something that shatters the glass ceiling of our expectations and gives us something we can be proud of as a country.

As I say all this, I recognize that it is not enough to call you out. I need to also call myself out and be bolder and more audacious, which I will do (see my Vision 2012 Powerpoint for my three year vision of what I see is possible in the years ahead). But you have already been granted a unique role at a pivotal moment in history. Do not let your pragmatism squelch the part of you that we fell in love with. America’s economic crisis is increasingly in the rearview mirror. Our ultimate destiny is to be a shining light among nations and for that we need an upgrade on the American dream – moving to one that is truly sustainable, conscious, peaceful, healthy and prosperous. You are positioned to inspire our nation to live our full potential and create that new American dream. But it’s not going to happen with pragmatism alone.

Be audacious again. Give us more of the Obama we fell in love with.

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