Candidate Obama was sharply criticized for not having a plan for the economy or for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He defended by saying that the President’s job is to listen to all positions before acting, and that he hadn’t had the chance to do that yet. It was the single most threatening concern about his candidacy in the Democratic primaries, and in the Presidential election.
Unfortunately, Candidate Obama’s wide-eyed, idealistic optimism has given way to Politician Obama’s having to decide for the media whether he supports or opposes issues such as the plan to build a Muslim Mosque near Ground Zero. See Obama backs ‘Ground Zero’ mosque.
The President’s job is not to decide whether he supports or opposes a project such as this. His job is to lead by making certain that there is a healthy dialogue going on. The pressure on President Obama from politicians and the media, who are all accustomed to dealing in a world of positions, has caused him to do the worst thing he can do as a leader: take a position on the issues that Americans care about. The astute politician, and the masterful leader, know how to advance the dialogue without taking a side, and understand that as soon as they take a side, they have alienated all of the people who believe strongly in the other side.
What is needed here is more than a Beer Summit, but it is not as far off as most people would think.
Recently, I brought together two Arizona legislators to hold a mediated dialogue on the immigration issue facing America. We calmly discussed each group’s underlying interests, goals and values and found that they surprisingly agreed on most of the issues.
This kind of dialogue, however, only tends to occur when a professional facilitator is managing the discussion, when the stakeholders are all present or represented, and when the discussion turns away from positions (black or white, thumbs up or thumbs down) to each group hearing the other – not unlike the President did when he held the Beer Garden Photo Op. In that discussion, and in that setting, it was a different discussion than the two men had ever had. That was the same response that I had from the two legislators, who each told me that they had learned more and had a better discussion in the two hours on a stage with me than they had been able to have in sum to that point.
What this issue needs is a real dialogue, facilitated (mediated) by a professional who is expert at managing the emotions, the values and the discussion between representatives of the two groups. Give me Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and some of his leaders, along with some of the most vocal opponents, preferably from families of those who died in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, and I will guarantee you a dialogue where each walks away having heard the other and having had their eyes opened to things that they had not realized before this discussion. Televise it, put it on the internet, and broadcast it over the radio, and we will educate hundreds of thousands with one discussion.
This is what we do – those of us who resolve conflict. Mediators do it every day in legal battles, Ombudspeople do it in the workplace environment and conflict coaches do it with individuals who are in conflict. My personal passion is to do it in situations such as this.
It is time for President Obama to begin delegating the facilitation of issues such as this to those of us who do it professionally, and return to running the county, focusing on the wars, the economy and jobs, and the spill that endangers the Gulf Coast.