Obama’s leadership shift on values

January 22, 2013

In his second inaugural address, President Barack Obama took a surprisingly aggressive and even partisan posture. He argued that American ideals can only be fulfilled through the enactment of a series of liberal priorities, including climate change and gay rights, while explicitly rebuking his defeated opponent’s description of a large portion of the American population as “takers.” Leaders nearly always seek unity, but those who want to change their organizations have two paths to such unity—compromise or victory. Obama’s speech, particularly the way it invoked Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural, chose victory.

All organizations—the United States included—have values, but sometimes either the values themselves or the way they are enacted no longer fit with the times. The challenge for a leader, then, is to change either them or their interpretation. Such changes almost always meet opposition, resulting in power struggles that can fracture an organization and leave the victorious leader with the task of reknitting frayed bonds.  This is where Obama finds himself as his second term begins.

Obama has two ways to rebuild American consensus around our values and how we live up to them. One is to find a mutually acceptable middle ground between his interpretation of quintessentially American values like liberty and opportunity and his opponents’ interpretation. The other is to use the power of the presidency to fully enact his vision, thus shifting the nation’s self-concept such that no other interpretation of American values is conceivable. Lincoln’s second inaugural address had paeans to the first path. But those were not the passages President Obama drew upon.

Instead the president referenced Lincoln by proclaiming that “through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free.” This refers to the great emancipator’s declaration, “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until…every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

Today Lincoln’s speech is a part of our common heritage, so uncontroversial and accepted as the greatest statement of one of our greatest presidents that it is engraved on the Lincoln Memorial. Yet at the time it was uttered it was profoundly radical. In the 1864 election, the Democratic Party had made racial demagoguery and opposition to abolition one of the primary components of its campaign, to an extent almost impossible to believe from a modern perspective. Lincoln’s proclamation that the horrors of the Civil War were a “righteous” judgment for the sin of slavery was a pointed rebuke.

By drawing on those passages, President Obama seems to seek the same path to national unity that Lincoln eventually found – unity through transformation, not moderation. In the new America created by Lincoln’s electoral triumph and the North’s impending Civil War victory, American values no longer meant a nation “half slave and half free.” America could begin to expiate the sin of slavery only through its complete abolition. The re-forged American view of slavery reflected less Lincoln’s skill at compromise and more his formidable resolve to pursue total victory.

Barack Obama’s vision, of course, is not nearly as transformative as Lincoln’s. His speech nevertheless  suggests that he too sees victory, not compromise, as the path to the America he envisions and that he believes voters want. He sees a future America in which the idea that gays can marry or that climate change must be fought is no more controversial than opposing slavery is today. All would come to be seen as the natural embodiment of eternal American values, even though all were once hotly contested or even rejected by most Americans. The two great questions of his second term are whether he will stick to that approach and what its result will be.

Gautam Mukunda is an assistant professor at Harvard Business School and the author of “Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter.”

Read also:

A history of presidential inaugurations

Obama misses the moment

In inaugural address, an oath for everyone

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