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Welches: How Obama Is Doing


Jack and Suzy Welch disagree with the President on points of policy but think he's earned an A thus far

"So…how's Obama doing?"

This was the question floated by our host at a recent dinner party. In response, two people said they were disappointed, seven claimed to be on the fence, four asserted it was too early to tell, and three said flat-out great. Where were we in the mix? Allow us to issue a preliminary "report card" on President Obama's leadership since taking office to explain.

But first, note that we just used the word leadership. This column isn't about policy. If it were, we'd probably be on the fence, too. We passionately oppose the President's position on doing away with secret ballots for unionization votes, and we're suspicious of his cap-and-trade proposal, a version of which has done little for Europe. We also find the new budget alarming—with its optimistic forecasts and staggering short-term deficits. On the other hand, we're generally positive about the Administration's reaction to the economic crisis. And we're strongly supportive of his foreign policy, which strikes us as sound and progressive.

But forget all that. Our grade for Obama is based on how he's doing on critical performance criteria as our country's CEO.

Vision and Team-Building

Let's start with vision, the "thing" without which a person simply cannot lead. And look, whether you like his politics or not, Obama's obviously got it. From the economy to the environment, education to health care, the President has articulated his goals to the nation.

Vision, though, is meaningless alone. To be an effective leader, you must communicate consistently, vividly, and so darn frequently that your throat gets soar. You can't, as we've said, communicate too much, especially when you're galvanizing change.

Who could disagree that Obama's nailing this challenge? Every time he speaks, which is often, he's thoughtful, expansive, and candid. And he has also worked assiduously to get heard outside of Washington, even showing up on Jay Leno's set to reach beyond the "usual suspects." Again, we wish that Obama's message was sometimes a different one, but when we heard his NATO press conference last Saturday—explaining America's "exceptionalism"—his lucidity and lack of arrogance rendered any criticism moot. He will surely be the next American President to carry the mantle of The Great Communicator.

Now to team-building, another strength of successful leaders. The potential for "palace intrigue" between Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, not to mention the White House staff and Hillary Clinton's complex, high-caliber State Dept. organization made us skeptical on this front.

We may have been overconcerned. The economic team seems to be working seamlessly, egos in check, despite all the pressure. And Hillary is refreshing in her new role, with the President clearly giving her the latitude to make a mark. (Her recent remarks about U.S.-Mexico relations were frank and overdue.) We give the President points, too, for Arne Duncan, who, with his bold support of merit pay and charter schools, looks to be a great choice as Education Secretary.

Speed and Authenticity

Speed is another key attribute, and again, Obama can't be faulted. Weeks back, we actually worried he was moving too fast on too many fronts, diverting attention from the economic crisis. Since then, he has tightened his focus, making great strides, for instance, with the auto industry task force, which took decisive action with GM (GM).

And then there's authenticity, the hallmark of every effective leader.

Well, thank goodness for Michelle. Not that the President isn't "real," it's just that he remains somewhat cool in his affect. That's fine. But people crave humanity in their leaders. Luckily, his wife, with her warmth and broad appeal, is supplying it in buckets.

Before we begin to sound irrationally exuberant, remember that the President has yet to be tested on two key traits, resilience and the wherewithal to champion unpopular causes.

But 70 days is still plenty of time to get a sense of an executive's performance. And while we'd like to see his skills applied to different policies, when it comes to leadership, Barack Obama has certainly earned an A.

Jack and Suzy Welch look forward to your questions. You can e-mail them and view their new website at www.welchway.com For their podcast, go to www.businessweek.com/search/podcasting.htm.

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