How I looked like Obama

October 11, 2012 2 min read

A week ago I watched in amazement as President Obama appeared lost and confused – bottled-up – in his debate with Mitt Romney. I didn’t understand the look on his face or his reaction until I found myself in a similar situation.

I was in a meeting with a group of corporate executives; I alone was opposing a particular proposal as really bad policy. My case was greeted with many nodding heads. The proponent of the new policy—a leader with whom I have locked horns in the past—had been making one argument before I intervened. After I finished my rebuttal, this leader changed tack. “Government regulations require that we make the change,” he blurted. 

To be fair, the new policy was something that governments might be regulating. I’d never heard this regulation before, but there was a certain logic to what he had said.  But I really couldn’t be sure. 

At that moment, I imagine my appearance was as close to Barack Obama’s debate face as a bald, white man can have. Here’s what was going through my head:

  • Confusion: “I’ve never heard that before; should I have known that?”
  • Self-protection: “If it could be true, I definitely should not challenge it because I’ll look like a fool”
  • Indignation: “I think you are just making this up!”
  • Caution: “I can’t lose my cool here. I’m not sure this argument is worth it.”

I sat down, a vote was called, and the new (bad) policy was adopted.

During the following hours, I called people and scoured the internet. I learned this fact: there is no such government regulation. My nemesis had fabricated the argument to get the policy passed. And I sat there and said nothing. He had outmaneuvered me with an out-and-out lie.

Since then I’ve played the conversation over in my mind a hundred times. And I’ve developed two responses, either one of which I could have or should have used in the moment—and President Obama may be thinking along the same lines: Here they are:

  1. “Are you sure about that regulation, because I’m not. Let’s put off a decision until we’ve had a chance to confirm what you’re saying.”
  2. “Who are you? You make an impassioned plea for this policy with one argument, and only when the proposal looks imperiled do you bring out the strongest rationale for it. Why wouldn’t you lead with that if that is the truth?”

But, sadly, I didn’t say either of those. I was a little concerned about burning through my social capital in the organization by going after that leader too fiercely. But, instead I looked feeble and allowed a bad policy onto the books. 

I learned my lesson; I hope that the President has too…