In the town hall meetings about health-care reform, President Obama is articulate, charismatic, and a virtual repository of answers and information. He’s playing to his strengths—which is the problem. His approval rating has dipped from 69% at the start of his presidency to 51%, largely because he’s playing The Great Answerer, not The Great Asker.
Our nation is in need of answers on just about every front: health-care, terrorism, ethnic rifts, Iraq, financial industry concerns, the home foreclosure epidemic, infectious diseases, and climate change. But we want our leaders to lead by asking inspiring and enlightening questions, and delegating—not by supplying answers.
President Obama has fallen prey to the myth that a leader must be an oracle of knowledge. In town hall meetings, he takes great questions, but rarely asks them. After he asks people for their name and home town, and learns their question, he might seek clarification with a question, but he then uses citizens’ remarks to make his points.
In the town-hall format, anyone can ask a question, but not everyone can respond or provide answers. Their impact is minimal, in part because our leader’s mind has already been made up. As a result, this format is decidedly undemocratic.
Of course, Obama does know more about health care than most, if not everyone, at a given town hall meeting. But these meetings turn into little more than briefings. The tough questions, we sense, Obama has asked off-screen to independent experts or members of his cabinet.
Those are the discussions I’d like to see on TV or in a town hall meeting: questions that are asked before a decision has been made, before a 1,000-page bill has been written. These questions ought to be directed toward people who have spent their lives studying or reporting on various aspects of health-care; working in billing offices, insurance agencies, and ERs; suffering from illnesses haven’t been covered due to various loopholes; and writing policy to address complex health-care issues.
Wisdom is in the crowd. Too many recent crises have occurred because of decisions made by too few—in the auto and financial industries, for instance. This centralization of power allows for the self-interest of some to undermine the best interests of the group.
Complex issues, like the effect of derivatives on the financial industry, ought to be brought to the crowd, not pulled from them. The crowd knows better than any one individual—especially if that individual is going nonstop from speaking engagements to briefings, to meetings in foreign countries, to afternoon BBQs at the White House, to State Dinners in the evening, and to Jonas Brothers concerts at night.
Yes, we want confident leaders, but not know-it-alls. We want a great asker, who isn’t afraid to reveal vulnerability and gaps in their knowledge. We want to be asked for our opinion, not told what to do. Innovation and real change come from asking. President Obama, ask us questions before you make a decision.