President Barrack Obama started off on the wrong foot when announcing his plan to trade a year of unemployment benefits for two years of extended tax cuts. He knew it would be an unpopular compromise with many in his party, and so he began with a defensive set of comebacks to counter the expected criticism. It was a pattern he stayed with throughout his remarks.
Obama also attempted to raise himself above “some” whom he described as wanting to play games and engage in politics and fights. This unnecessary slapdown was directed at a wide range of unnamed people. It could have been any of us. And it amplified the defensive tone he’d taken right out of the gate. “I’m not here to play games with the American people and the health of our economy.”
Effective communication is about influencing the choices of others while conveying ideas. It would have been sufficient for Obama to explain his desire to help people whose unemployment benefits would otherwise expire. He could have demonstrated with charts how the lives of many Americans would be improved by his decision. While he would still have faced disagreement, it would not have been about such side issues as who’s less political and who’s out of touch.
The president’s criticism of his unnamed critics came across as an effort to cheapen the views of those who believe he is compromising too easily with Republicans. He might have framed his decision process as emanating from a struggle between most Democrats and most conservative Republicans. Instead, he chose to insult a wide range of people: his real and imagined critics. By taking this route, he alienated people who might otherwise have at least considered his perspective. He failed to manage the conversation in a constructive manner, instead abdicating that 75% responsibility that we write about in Comebacks at Work.
Communication is like chess in that each move limits or expands the options of the other party. Cornering other people by making them look selfish or politically trivial limits their choice of comebacks to one of defensiveness. In most circumstances, it’s ineffective to advance your own perspective by demeaning your opponents’ perspectives. But to demean the views of your supporters is doubly dysfunctional! They feel betrayed. And they don’t forget.
Obama could have told us that the tax cut decision was extremely difficult. He might have mentioned that many people he holds in high regard see the situation differently and that he respects their views? Despite this dilemma, his primary concern, he might have explained, had to be about those who would lose their unemployment checks. There was simply no need for a defensive tone, nor for verbal slaps at the opposition, nor for attempting to cheapen their views merely to enhance the value of his.
During press questioning, to add insult to injury, when asked to explain his opposition to extending tax cuts for the wealthy as expressed prior to the midterm election, he didn’t fair well either. He indicated that opposition to high end tax cuts was a “strong position” to take going into the midterm elections. So which was it? Was he truly opposed to tax cuts that he is now condoning — or was he merely opposed because it was useful to him before, but not useful now? He lost credibility on that set of responses. Consistency is critical.
A more straightforward response might have been: “I have not changed my opinion. With considerable difficulty my administration has moved to meet the Republicans on this ‘holy grail’ issue for them and they have moved to meet us in assuring that 2 million unemployed people will not be without food and shelter for the next year. And people struggling will not be paying approximately $3,000 more in taxes.
It isn’t that the president didn’t make good points. He made them defensively. The fault was in his chosen process and the use of derogatory comebacks to criticisms not yet stated. These did not serve him well.
Rule to remember, Mr. President: Simple and consistent are better choices than long-winded, defensive and insulting.