“It’s like having a bad hair day, but much worse than that.” That’s Professor Michael Useem’s assessment of the terrible week President Obama has had—what with the threat from ISIS, the Secret Service scandal, and the first confirmed case of Ebola in the United States.
Those problems may or may not be the president’s fault, but they’re on his head nonetheless.
The threat from this particular cadre of Islamic extremists has been present for weeks now, capturing the public’s concern after the group beheaded two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, this summer. That problem merged with two others this week, creating an unfortunate confluence of crises.
On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control confirmed that a man from Dallas who’d traveled to Liberia had contracted the first case of Ebola in the U.S., setting off fears of a domestic epidemic. Then the Secret Service came under scrutiny and its director, Julia Pierson, resigned on Wednesday after the disclosure of two major security breaches: an armed fence jumper made it deep into the White House on September 19 and an ex-convict carrying a gun rode in an elevator with the president earlier in the month.
“Since he’s the problem-solver-in-chief,” says Useem, who specializes in leadership and management at the Wharton School, “he’s gotta jump with both feet into all these crises.”
But when you are facing multiple pressing problems, how exactly do you do that?
There are, of course, no easy solutions to any of these problems. Many of them will likely to take months, if not years, to fully address. Though there is one straightforward strategy that President Obama can deploy immediately to quell the calamities: offer the perception that he’s completely in charge.
“So much of being president is about projecting confidence to people and not so much about individual tactical decisions,” says David Thornburgh, executive director at the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania. Once he’s reassured the public that its faith in him as a leader is well-placed, Thornburgh says, “you can take things in stride and sort them out and not feel the need to react to every 20-minute news cycle.”
Thornburgh points to Ronald Reagan’s behavior in the moments after he was shot in March 1981. The president joked with doctors, telling the surgical team that he hoped they were all Republicans. That was a different kind of crisis, Thornburgh says, but it gave the public a “sense of assuredness and calm.”
President Obama could exert that same persona if he’d publicly delegate authority for solving these problems to members of his administration. “This is what we call a wicked big problem; he needs other competent people around him on this. It’s not a one-man show,” says Lynn Wooten, a professor of strategy, management, and organizations at University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “Who’s out there leading the initiative on the Ebola crisis? What’s the action plan?” she says. The Secret Service scandal will likely fade, but with ISIS and Ebola, in the initial reaction phase, she says, “the perception has to be that someone’s in charge.”
There’s a two or three day window following a scandal or disaster in which the president can convince the public that he’s in control, Wooten says. After that, the public grows tired of rhetoric and wants to see action and results. That deadline may have passed for ISIS and the clock is running out on the other two issues.
Taking all this into account, it may come as a surprise that President Obama’s public remarks on Thursday focused on none of these three pressing matters. Instead, he stepped back from what he called the rush of global events to tout the economic achievements of the past six years—reduced unemployment and a stock market that hit record highs in the past month.
The topic of the speech was geared toward the upcoming midterm elections, in which the Democrat Party’s control of the Senate is at stake. The economy is the top issue for Americans likely to vote in November, according to a poll released Wednesday by the Associated Press-GfK.
Thursday’s speech fit into the confidence strategy that Obama should employ, Thornburgh says. It gave the president the opportunity “to try to pull back and project some of the qualities and principles that people admired to begin with.” It’s worth “getting some altitude” on the current situation and showing Americans that the administration has taken on big challenges and made progress. It’s a subliminal way of telling the public that with time, not all perceived catastrophes live up to expectations. “Look at the Obamacare meltdown,” Thornburgh says. “If we give it time, then things turn out to be better than we thought.”