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John Tantillo – – July 30, 2009

While campaigning, Senator Obama was often admired for playing it cool; President Obama has to do the same if he wants to be known as the leader with certain professorial tendencies — rather than the professor who somehow became a president.

The health care debacle and the botched handling of the Gates arrest are showing us an important weakness in the Obama brand.

As I’ve mentioned before, Obama is at real risk of over-exposure. Even though it might seem that he has to appear everywhere to sell health care reform– the opposite may be true at this point.

I’m also starting to think that the president’s over-exposure is just a symptom of a deeper brand problem: Obama’s urge to explain everything.

Let’s call it “The Professor Factor.”

It’s as though Barack Obama believes that every situation can be addressed with reasonable negotiation and explanation. It’s as if he believes that if he can just get everyone to sit down, talk (over a beer, perhaps?) or, more likely, listen to him and the wisdom he is delivering “whether in the form of a speech or mini-lecture” then almost every situation can be resolved.

Bottom line: this is simply not true, and it’s a risky thing for a leader to believe.

Leadership is often about moving the ball forward and letting everyone catch up later. It is not about seeking approval after every play. It is about making the touchdown and winning the game — whether or not the crowd agrees with or even understands your strategies.

After the Bush years, when momentous decisions were made with little articulation as to why, many Americans understandably craved a leader who could explain what he was doing and why.

Fact is, there is a limit to how much people want things explained. (The start time for the president’s prime time press conference was changed last week because one of the broadcast networks refused to carry it. Why? Because the original start time conflicted with an interview of the “American Idol” runner-up. That tells us plenty.)

But more than over-exposure or over-explanation, we are talking about what image is beginning to harden in people’s minds about our president.

The polls won’t answer this question for us, but at some point everyone will simply know. Barack Obama’s image is still forming. It has not yet hardened. But someday soon, the image will fit the man.

As president, you can only hope that it’s an image that doesn’t hobble your work. Reagan could get away with being seen as an actor because he got things done. Clinton’s moral failings could be forgiven because he got things done.

It’s when you don’t get things done or you get the wrong things done that your image hardens into something toxic.

My concern is that in Obama’s case the image might harden into that of an idealistic, professorial type who talks about leading rather than actually leads, who has big ideas, but little practical experience. Woodrow Wilson not FDR.

Think about John Kerry. As soon as he was labeled an overly-intellectual waffler, the label stuck because every time you saw him speaking, the image was re-enforced. He sounded like an overly-intellectual waffler.

But in Barack Obama’s case, the “Professor Factor” could be even more damaging if combined with the belief that despite his appeals for objectivity, reason and the facts, he is already ideologically convinced (i.e., the Gates’ incident… I don’t know all the facts but here’s my opinion).

And let’s not forget Jimmy Carter. He was thought to be one of the most intelligent people ever to occupy the Oval Office — but he micro-managed his way out of office by delegating too little and being seen as too mired down in the details.

So far, President Obama has avoided this fate of the sticky intellectual label and the micro-manager, but unless he seriously reassesses how he is coming across to his Target Market, it could happen soon.

Instead of being impressed by Obama’s eloquence at the podium, people will connect his tendency to discourse with inaction and lack of results.

Now’s the time for him to change: Step back from the public spotlight, be slower to react to the news cycle and more ready to take action without asking permission.

While campaigning, Senator Obama was often admired for playing it cool; President Obama has to do the same if he wants to be known as the leader with certain professorial tendencies — rather than the professor who somehow became a president.

And remember, business and the business of politics is always easier when you keep marketing and branding in mind.

John Tantillo is the Marketing and Branding Expert/Founder and President, of the Marketing Department of America.

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