President Barack Obama’s approval rating has hit a record low of 39 percent. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

With the president’s approval rating sinking below 40 percent for the first time, this week’s On Leadership roundtable explores Obama’s wavering leadership and how he could steady it—with opinion pieces by former Congressman Mickey Edwards, journalist Evan Thomas, public opinion polling expert Peter Hart, and Harvard Professor Nancy Koehn.

Barack Obama isn’t the first U.S. president to fall from favor, and he most certainly won’t be the last. With his approval rating at a record low, President Obama has been largely absent from the global – and national – stage, and this at a time when the world’s fate hangs in such delicate balance.

The global financial markets are quaking. Economies large and small are sputtering. Working families, already hard-pressed, are strained to the breaking point. And amid all this, Obama’s lack of action and a strong voice has created an enormous leadership vacuum.  Political vitriol, dangerous brinkmanship and widespread uncertainty have poured into this space.

Many of our past presidents have faced similar moments of great turbulence. If Obama wants to reclaim his proper place as the leader of the world’s (still) most powerful country, he should take some lessons from them. Even in the face of the Standard & Poor’s downgrade, the United States is the only country capable of restoring order and moving the markets and global economy forward. And only its leader can captain this crucial journey. But where is he?

Like Obama, Lincoln’s presidency was marked by moments of great failure and public criticism. It took our 16th president a long time to find the personal conviction, courage and faith he needed to lead effectively in order to save the union. Can Obama find his own power (and larger purpose) to lead right here, right now? Only he can answer this question. But the search begins, if Lincoln is any guide, with framing the stakes. 

Lincoln used speeches such as the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural to put the events of the Civil War in perspective. He explained what was happening, why a specific course was necessary, and what the tradeoffs were of following this path. With no time to waste, Obama must likewise lay out for our country and the global community the momentous issues confronting us and outline a clear strategy for addressing them. Then he must call his citizens to action. People long to serve; they are eager to make a difference when big things hang in the balance. Just remember the aftermath of September 11 when millions clambered to help. History is rich with examples of ordinary Americans mobilizing for war, raising millions to support disaster relief and holding prayer groups for those in need.

John F. Kennedy understood the power of the American spirit and how to use his own charisma to inspire collective action. Throughout his presidency, he issued many calls to action: calls to improve education, calls to reach the moon, and calls to serve one’s country. Obama has not done so nearly enough. And yet when he has, the effect has been powerful.

Late last month, Obama asked Americans to petition Congress for a balanced approach to reducing the federal deficit.  Capitol Hill switchboards and websites were mobbed as citizens rushed to play a part in an important moment.  Imagine what the president could do with regular outreach such as weekly television or Internet fireside chats? 

Obama can’t ignore the power of the people or the emotions that guide them. People around the world are confused and frightened. We see this in the volatile financial markets, Britain’s riots and France’s debt crisis. We hear it every time we turn on talk radio in the car.

At another moment of great unrest in early 1933, Franklin Roosevelt provided the assurance the public so desperately needed with powerful words: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” He understood that escalating anxiety could crash the financial system and used his first inaugural speech to lead public sentiment, as well as policymaking. Channeling Roosevelt, Obama must become an emotional ballast in the choppy waters of global sentiment. He must help us dial down our fear and put it in a more thoughtful frame.

Finally, Obama must appeal to American’s innate sense of fairness. Despite the recent polarization of politics, we have a long track record as a nation of pragmatists who, at times of crisis, have been able to understand differing interests while holding fast to a larger, more general sense of proportion.  

Early last century, Theodore Roosevelt relied on this aspect of the American character when he put forward his square deal for the nation’s young, industrial economy. Roosevelt took into account the different interests of all the players – the people, the workers, the businesses – and found a solution that benefitted everyone.

Obama needs to articulate a square deal for the global community today. This is critical for the capital markets and the world economy, but his strategy must go beyond financial blocking and tackling.  It must make an effective appeal to recognized fairness.

Ultimately, the decision to lead is Obama’s, and his alone. Can he pick up the reins of leadership—political, emotional and moral—and ride a higher path up and out of the current morass?  Nothing less will do and no one else can do it.  The stakes are high. Continuing along the status quo is simply not an option. The potential losses are big, but so are the gains. Obama must act. He must lead.

Nancy F. Koehn is a historian at the Harvard Business School and author, most recently, of The Story of American Business: From the Pages of the New York Times.

From the roundtable:

Evan Thomas: Want to save your approval rating, Mr. President?

Mickey Edwards: How well is Obama using his bully pulpit?

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