With many of President Obama’s key agenda items still unresolved midway through his first year in office, a debate has started to brew over the effectiveness of his leadership strategy and style. Critics say his agenda is too broad and that he is yielding too much authority to Congress. But leadership experts at Wharton suggest that this approach may be necessary, given the multitude of challenges the President inherited when he took the oath of office.  

By seeking major overhauls of health care and financial regulation, spending billions to stimulate the economy while reducing its impact on the environment, and unwinding one war while escalating another, some critics question whether Obama is trying to tackle too many problems at once. By doing so, they argue, Obama ignores the legacy of past presidents who maintained a more steady focus — such as Ronald Reagan, whose first year in office was devoted almost solely to his tax-cut plan and related measures, while Cold War diplomacy and other issues were placed on the back burner.

Among those well-known voices who argue that Obama’s first year should be focused on the economic meltdown — while other key issues can wait — is billionaire investment guru Warren Buffett, an Obama supporter, who has been quoted as saying that “[you] can’t expect people to unite behind you if you’re trying to jam a whole bunch of things down their throat.” Not surprisingly, Obama and his aides disagree, contending that an economic crisis presents a rare opportunity for accomplishing major changes in the body politic. “We don’t have the luxury of choosing between getting our economy moving now and rebuilding it over the long term,” the President said earlier this year.

Short Attention Spans

“We’ve known for a long time that attention spans are limited; as soon as we focus on one issue [our attention is taken away] from other goals or issues,” says Wharton management professor Adam M. Grant. “But leaders can get around that by developing a broad, unifying concept,” and then showing how each part of his or her program fits that well-understood goal.

Michael Useem, Wharton management professor and director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management, argues that a key criterion of presidential leadership is boldness in taking on the most challenging problems — and he gives Obama high marks for now. Anyone who wants to succeed in the nation’s highest office, he adds, “needs to embrace a willingness to make big decisions, to get into the game, to take on these wrenching issues that often have extreme conflict and pressure, with all kinds of advice coming in. But it’s also critical that he doesn’t shoot too much from the hip or give in to absolute paralysis.”

Useem says Obama’s approach to health care — ceding Congress a critical role in designing the plan and adopting a less than rigid stance on the specifics — is an example of another of the new President’s important leadership traits: Pragmatism. “If you go back and look at the election, health care was a huge, animating force in many of the states where he got a majority [of the votes], and he hasn’t forgotten that. But he is short on ideology and long on pragmatism.” Useem suggests that Obama’s management style is almost military in nature, comparable to calling on the knowledge and expertise of field commanders closest to the front lines to develop the tactics needed to achieve the broader strategy.

Stewart D. Friedman, a Wharton management professor who directs the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, suggests that those who say Obama is taking on too many issues ignore the realities of the complex array of problems — not just the economy, but also ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — that he confronted from the moment he took the oath of office. “The short answer is that he didn’t have a choice when you look at the scope of the challenges we face as a country. How can you not deal with any of these? How can you not deal with health care or foreign affairs? I think the challenge for him is to have each piece of his leadership agenda cohere as a unified package.”

Obama himself has cited two former presidents as role models for leadership: Abraham Lincoln, who forged ahead with the transcontinental railroad project even as he waged the Civil War, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who, under the rubric of fighting the Depression, addressed everything from the electric grid (establishing the Tennessee Valley Authority) to problems facing senior citizens (setting up Social Security).

Lacking a Clear Vision

But Alvin Felzenberg, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communications and author of a book on the presidency, The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t), says Obama has so far fallen short of those presidents who are most admired for leadership, and he argues that the lack of a clear overriding vision for his administration has been the main reason why.

Felzenberg — who worked as an aide to several moderate Republicans, including former New Jersey governor Tom Kean — says Obama’s decision to give Congress such a powerful role in drafting and debating key ingredients of his health care plan has resulted in a muddled vision that will be very difficult to sell to skeptical American taxpayers. “The President needs to take a long vacation, and he needs to take a legal pad and sit down, out of the public view, and ask himself how … he wants history to remember his presidency after four years, or after eight years.” Noting that President Dwight Eisenhower is still hailed for spearheading America’s interstate highway system in the 1950s, Felzenberg points out that Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package allocated just 11% of its funding for projects like roads and bridges, with the rest for tax cuts, local governments and other purposes.

Still, Wharton’s Grant sees a lot of opportunity for Obama — but only if the President does more to show how issues like health care and the economy are interrelated, and how the programs stem from broader values that he shares with the American public. “It’s very difficult to change people’s values and attitudes,” Grant says, “but it’s much more feasible to get change by connecting it to values and attitudes that people already have.”

Grant adds a caveat: It’s easier to tap into those abstract values — notions of freedom and fairness, for example — by using very concrete examples from everyday life that Americans can relate to. Indeed, this was an area in which Reagan was a pioneer, with his practice of inviting soldiers or homeless advocates to attend the State of the Union Address, during which he would call attention to their achievements.

Outsourcing Leadership

Grant suggests that Obama should work publicly with experts to win confidence for his programs — perhaps a general to speak about the situation in Afghanistan or respected doctors who back his health care plan. “There are studies showing that leadership can be outsourced,” Grant notes, adding that Americans have indicated they respond better to messages from people who have “first-hand experience, expertise and knowledge about the issues.”

However, outsourcing might also take away from what some experts consider to be one of Obama’s strongest points as a leader — his own ability to speak at length about complex issues in a way that is intelligent, rational and even calming. Wharton’s Friedman, for one, believes Obama’s soothing nature as a speaker may explain his appeal more than any ability to simplify his message. “His sense of competence and calm, and the pragmatic way that he’s been able to get things done to date, have given people a lot of confidence,” says Friedman, describing Obama as “unflappable.”

Useem notes that according to David Gergen, who has advised four presidents, one of the most important elements of presidential leadership is ambition — not the personal kind, but an ambition for the country. “As President, Barack Obama is very ambitious. We know the list — the litany of objectives like health care, economic recovery, ending two wars and changing the way that the court system and Congress operate.”

Aiming to tackle so many issues in his first term is emblematic of another essential leadership quality — risk-taking, according to Useem. While Obama has made it clear that he has studied former leaders — especially Roosevelt and Lincoln — he needs to be careful not to be perceived as trying too hard to copy or imitate any one or two specific past presidents. “If it looks like he’s trying to emulate someone else, people are not going to like that.”

But both Useem and Friedman say they believe that authenticity — and Obama’s appearance of being comfortable with who he is — have so far been one of his strong points.

Friedman — the author of Total Leadership, a book about integrating work and family life — has also been impressed with the way that Obama presents himself as a normal dad and a husband who still takes his wife Michelle out for “date night.” That image of a real-life family man could help him sway public opinion, Friedman believes. “He has a kind of humanity — he’s able to laugh at himself. That is a critical feature in building trust, because the way that a leader does that is by conveying authenticity.”