Obama’s “Gig,” and Ours … A Discernment

Polls show that confidence in President Obama’s leadership is slipping among Americans, even as he struggles to regain his voice with an ambitious new jobs plan. According to various commentators, the president has seemed unable to stick with his own program, to stake out a credible vision of his presidency, to decide he’s one thing and not another.

Here’s another way of looking at it: Obama, like many of us, doesn’t really know or appreciate his “gig.”

That is a thought engendered by my friend Andy Boynton, dean of Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. Boynton talks about the importance of “knowing your gig,” what you’re all about as a professional and where you’d like to be going in your career. (He developed the concept together with me and Bill Fischer in The Idea Hunter).

In this rendering, a gig isn’t something done by a musician on a Saturday night. It is far broader in scope. It’s closer to one’s personal brand or professional identity, even to the sense of vocation many people seek to nurture. The function of a gig is to steer people toward ideas, projects, and proposals that are right for them.

How does a politician or anyone come to a thoughtful understanding of his or her gig? I’d suggest taking a cue from those who help young people discern their callings in life.

Michael Himes, a Catholic priest and theology professor at Boston College, has come up with some useful tools of self-reflection for those purposes. In several papers and presentations he has outlined three key questions people can reflect on, when choosing a profession or even just a job or some other role. Those questions are:

1. Is this a source of joy?

2. Is this something that taps into your talents and gifts–engages all of your abilities–and uses them in the fullest way possible?

3. Is this role a genuine service to the people around you, to society at large?

Himes has a pithier version of this discernment:

1. Do you get a kick out it?

2. Are you any good at it?

3. Does anyone want you to do it?

Such a process of theological reflection could help someone decide whether to be, for example, a politician. That would be a calling. But the process could also guide a person toward a certain way of being a politician, a particular way of adding value to local or national politics. That would be a gig.

A Place in the Political Universe

At the beginning of his administration, most people would have guessed that Obama had a gig.

He seemed to have a passion of sorts for social and economic justice, tempered though not eclipsed by a genuine desire for common ground. He was pretty good at crafting the message and selling it to broad swaths of the American public. And people were in the market for his brand of policy solutions (and still are, if polls on job creation and taxes on the wealthy are any guide).

Naturally, this picture grew a little murky as Obama grappled with the inevitable opposition. Governing is messy business, especially when the votes in Congress aren’t there. Political compromise is both necessary and honorable.

Still, it was easy to lose track of Obama’s essence as he commendably engaged Republicans in dialogue and curiously debated on their terms. This happened most recently during the debt-limit crisis, as the president’s focus turned altogether to deficit reduction rather than jobs.

It’s as if he had discerned his place in the political universe, his passion for economic fairness, and had become slightly embarrassed by it. Or had never really owned it.

This is just one track of analysis. Maybe Obama conceives of himself, above all, as a post-partisan, post-ideological politician. It’s an interesting possibility, but it would probably fall shy of a gig, since there isn’t much of a constituency at the moment for that way of being president.

But what would happen if Obama had a more-palpable sense of his mission and purpose as (let’s say) one who advocates a strong public sector? Would his popularity rebound? It’s not as simple as that, but at least Americans would have a sharper notion of who he is and who he isn’t.

They would know he’s the guy who stands in a long political tradition that uses government machinery to help lift the economy out of a deep ditch. He isn’t the guy who, at such a moment, proposes the biggest rollback of government spending power in American history, as he did in the debt-ceiling negotiations with GOP leaders.

We wouldn’t all agree with him, but we’d know his gig. And many of us would think more of him as a leader. As we might, depending on what unfolds in the coming months.

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