Are You Listening? Election Night Lessons

U.S.-President-Barack-Oba-006 Regardless of spin, last night's election results were a rebuke to our President and the existing Congress. Somehow the President has gone from the super mandate (super majorities in both houses of Congress and the Presidency) to nearly losing both houses and falling to "one-term" status in current presidential polls.

The political stuff here should be read through a ministry lens. I'm sure you can apply what I'm saying to your context.

Here's why I think last night happened:

It happened because people feel like no one is listening. They also feel like their leaders think they are dumb and that they know better–so they are passing things most people don't want. Yes, it has to do with policy, etc. But, the volume of the shout America gave last night came because they want government to listen. Current government isn't listening well, and so, the people are speaking more loudly. That's my take: decline via deafness.

In his fantastic book, How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins observes the first step in the process of decline is what he calls "The Hubris Born of Success." Brilliant, and, unfortunately, fitting. At a variety of levels, our President has acted with hubris born of his own success. It's what we hear as he insults his predecessor, and what we sense as he critiques his opponents. Nothing illustrates this hubris better than his statement to his Republican opponents during the health care debate, "Elections have consequences." Indeed they do.

The second phase of decline, according to Collins: Undisciplined Pursuit of More. Nuff said.

The third phase: Denial of risk and peril. Even into the evening last night, Nancy Pelosi still claimed the Democrats were in position to hold the House.

The fourth: Grasping for salvation.

The fifth: Capitulation to Irrelevance or Death.

Sadly, our President has provided a master class in how to speed through the first 3 phases. I'm hopeful he will, at stage 4, learn from the experience and change course. What does that look like?

If I were Obama, here's what I would do (not that he cares what I think):

  • Be quiet about your predecessor unless you are going to say something respectful. Be gracious, not ugly or vicious. Why? Because it's unbecoming and, as you're learning, it's a more difficult job than it looked like. True, you've been dealt a difficult hand…but your predecessor had to deal with the awful Bush-Gore voting mess, the bursting of the tech bubble and 9-11 within his first year. No violins for either of you. Don't demand credit for anything yet. Get the country through this and you may get credit. If not, you're in a service occupation anyway.
  • Stop calling everything you do "unprecedented." First of all, it's usually not. Second, other people need to say that for you.
  • Throw the other side a bone every now and then. You can't lead by polls, but you can't lead against the will of the people all the time. In each of these cases the strong majority of the country disagreed with you–Ft. Hood, trial of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Arizona, Ground-Zero Mosque, health-care, stimulus, bailouts, etc.—pick one…any one…and throw the other side a bone. Just one of those would have helped you out a lot.
  • Chill with the class and race warfare rhetoric. No "back of the bus" or "enemies" stuff. Head back to more hopeful rhetoric. Help us believe you, at times, like us and you like America. Right now, it feels to some like you don't.

All of these can happen without compromising your core beliefs. All of them are about attitude, pastoral heart, and leadership. Our President has these traits in him, but he needs to listen to the voice of the people, love them, and lead them. Whether it's a church or a country, last night's lessons are the same. Listen, lead, love.

How to you interpret last night's results? What advice would you give the President? What mistake or virtue do you see in our President and typical church leaders? Note: Only comments that are appropriate in tone and content will be posted. I would love to hear your observations.


Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Share Your Thoughts

16 thoughts on “Are You Listening? Election Night Lessons

  1. Tim, I love the fact that you are willing to take a stand and say what you think. Bully for you.
    However, were I were a betting man, I’d wager that Obama will indeed do his best to find a course that allows him to govern from the middle; and, I predict he’ll try and reach out to the “opposition” party as best he can. Even so, if history is any predictor of the future, I would also wager that he’ll meet even more opposition for his efforts than he is presently experiencing. In other words, I predict he will, rhetorically speaking, dial it down and that his opposition will dial it up. A free lunch at your favorite place if this doesn’t happen before the next presidential election.
    Obama may indeed be guilty of hubris, but the invectives of those who oppose him by publicly calling him a liar, a socialist and so on is no less arrogant.
    While I agree with a large part of what you’ve written, I think it may well be an over generalization to interpret these election results as failed Presidential policies. Surely you’d have to agree there is more to it than that? Didn’t you notice that republicans faced huge challenges from the ultra conservative Tea Party candidates?
    Would you be willing to address, with the same candor that you used with President Obama, the failed candidacies of the republicans from their Tea Party challengers? What communication and leadership advice would you offer these people? Would it be the same advice?
    And, just because I’m curious, are you really comfortable with the communication and leadership rhetoric you hear coming from the right–as well as the emergent Tea Party? Do you think their leadership is less inflammatory (Drill baby drill, etc.)?
    Yes, America wants changes–probably left, right and center. Good luck to all of them. And, good luck to you Tim, you’re a good guy and I like the fact that you’ll stick your neck out.

  2. Richard, the post isn’t a defense of the Republican party. My blog offers my opinion, no one else’s. However, based on the vote last week, at least some share my opinion that the President needs to change course.

  3. Stephen couldn’t have said it better. The Republican party that you so vigorously defend “ain’t your grandparent’s Republican party”! Today’s GOP is bitter and vengeful and has no solution for anything other than to undermine Mr. Obama’s efforts to help this country.

  4. Stephen,
    I don’t begrudge you your feelings or opinions. I obviously question the accuracy of much of what you’ve put forth–but see no need to continue this. I would encourage you to join the President in listening to alternative viewpoints and avoiding straight-line democratic talking points. Consider getting your news from a variety of sources.
    The vote said something much stronger than impatience. For the final time, the post was about the President’s listening and communication skills–not his policies. He better change gears somehow, because if he doesn’t, he’ll be done in 2 years.
    You feel how you feel. We’ll see how it goes.

  5. Tim: we’re obviously talking past each other. He didn’t say back of the bus, Fox twisted it, others then reported it, it was quickly dismissed but it’s just another example of the propaganda Fox churns out as part of its service to the Republican party. You buy it. Fine. But it’s a cheap shot that hardly deserves the time of day. Yet it forms an example of Obama’s “racial rhetoric.” Watch his speech on race (during the campaign); it’s brilliant.
    Probably not helpful to go further but can’t help but address the “throw a bone” comment. This is why the President is not much of a politician. This President solicited and included about 100 Republican amendments to the health care bill and then the Republicans to a man (and woman) refused to vote for it. He then responds to the election by making concessions to the Republicans before they’re even sworn in and before any negotiating has even begun. The President does not play hard ball. The Republicans do. That’s been his problem–he’s too conciliatory.
    And the mess he inherited IS unprecedented. Two wars, the greatest recession since the Great Depression, policies pursued by President Bush (deregulation, tax cuts without corresponding spending cuts, trillion dollar wars for no good purpose, the list goes on). A majority of Americans (not “the American people”) seems to think 18 months is plenty of time to right a ship. It’s not. The only ones doing well now are the very people who caused the financial crisis in the first place–financial services. They’re adding jobs and giving out bonuses again. The middle class is till mired in recession, home values are declining and people are still out of work. But the rich get richer. And they’ll get even more richer if the new Congress has its way.
    I take your point that I don’t know the details of whatever policy positions you may hold. But clearly you are no democrat. Certainly the Republicans (and you) believe the message of the election is a repudiation of the President’s policies. I don’t think it’s about policy so much as impatience with seeing results. Big difference. The President is responsible for the electorate’s failure to know that his bills have reduced taxes for 95% of Americans. Only 12-15% Americans actually believe that, but it’s actually true.. That’s a product of Republican mendacity and the PResident’s own abysmal performance using the bully pulpit.
    I guess the next 2 years will show if Obama has the ability to recover from this debacle. Your advice to Obama–stop talking about the past, throw the other side a bone even it’s against your principles (and the issues you cite are all Republican talking points BTW), and chill with the racial rhetoric (that he doesn’t actually employ but why should facts get in the way?)–that advice can be summed up this way: Switch parties.
    No matter how much he talked about bipartisanship or invited Republican input, the Republicans had not alternative proposal to the health care crisis, to the financial crisis (and NO one talked about the obscene amounts we’re spending on war). Yet your advice is to be conciliatory. Now that the Republicans have the house, they have made it very clear that they have no interest in working with Democrats to address any of these issues. They see their job as denying the president a second term and dismantling whatever he has accomplished, most significantly the health care legislation (by refusing to fund it) and by relaxing financial regulations, lowering taxes without reducing spending to compensate for decreased revenues, etc. These guys are not interested in governing so much as undoing. The Republican plan for health care? Don’t get sick. The Republican plan for financial regulation–give the rich a break–they’ll do the right thing. It’s mind boggling.
    Now that the Republicans have all they need to stifle the President’s agenda, what’s your advice to them? I’d love to know.

  6. Stephen,
    -Even CNN talked about the “sit in the back” comment on their election coverage. It isn’t bogus, it did happen. It was covered by all sorts of media from, as you mention, Fox (again, not where I saw it) to a number of other news sources. However, interpretation of it can vary. You can say you think the media is overblowing it, but you can’t say he never said it.
    -The post is not a validation of Republican principles at all. In fact, the only time policy is brought up at all is when I suggest not going against the majority of Americans (by the polls–not Republican talking points) on every issue. It’s a wise path, and one that nearly every political commentator on the right and left agree with now. The point has to do with the post’s primary point: listening.
    -The very “sit in back” comment you are so upset about is a clear example of his criticism of his predecessor. He’s talking about the economy that was “driven into the ditch” over the last 8 years. If you watch the President speak at all, you know he brings up “the last 8 years of failed policies” all the time. It’s his favorite talking point. So, the examples are too many to cite here. He has been more openly critical of his predecessor than any President in my lifetime by several hundred acres.
    -The post is not about my personal policy beliefs at all, and frankly, you don’t know what those are, so, I’m interested to know why you think I believe what you think I do–and where such intricate knowledge of my political beliefs comes from.
    -The post is not an assumption that I know everything about the election. It’s simply an opinion. If you have some thoughts on what actually happened, put them forth. I have some other thoughts on what happened, as well. Primarily, I don’t think the President has listened well to the people. That’s my opinion, but it’s shared by many.
    -I don’t think the President is a failed leader yet. However, he needs to change course. You can disagree with that. That’s fine. It’s an opinion.

  7. Tim: I have no problem with the “enemies” or “elections have consequences” quote and you have to read a lot into the “car” reference to get where Fox took it. (That story, like the India trip story, was promoted by Fox first. Like the India story, it’s bogus but Fox is not a news organization but a very-well run propaganda machine, as you might be willing to admit.) George Bush declared that he had a mandate in 2000 when he lost the popular vote badly and talked about spending political capital. That’s just the reality of politics. No problems with that.
    What I take from your post is a settled conviction that you understand what the meaning of the election is. The Republicans and the MSM agree with your interpretation and will push it relentlessly in the coming months. But there are other ways to assess the meaning of the election.
    And then you critique the President in this way: “[He] has acted with hubris born of his own success. It’s what we hear as he insults his predecessor, and what we sense as he critiques his opponents. Nothing illustrates this hubris better than his statement to his Republican opponents during the health care debate, “Elections have consequences.” Indeed they do.”
    Not sure how he insulted Pres. Bush. You’ll have to identify examples. As for listening to the people, by your logic the President in 2008 had the green light from the electorate to tackle jobs and health care. In fact, the health care bill, with all it’s flaws, actually reduces the deficit according to GAO projections. No one talks about that because when you are ideologically opposed to providing universal health care, you ignore the things that undercut your rhetoric. So, had the President been “listening to the people,” as you suggest, he should have insisted on more comprehensive legislation, both with regards to the health care bill and the financial regulations bill and the stimulus bill. I have the sense you would not like that result but since you think the President leads by doing the people’s will, the meaning of the 2008 election would seem to suggest that the people in 2010 were upset that the President didn’t go far enough.
    Obama is a failed leader, no doubt about that. But I don’t think this election can be neatly read as a validation of the Republican principles to which you subscribe or a rebuke of the policies he implemented. The meaning runs deeper.

  8. Terry, just a quick response.
    -Nowhere do I disrespect the office of the President. I never call him “Barack” per your “George” analogy. Twice, and only twice do I refer to him the way numerous newspapers friendly to the President refer to him on occasion…by last name. Once out of many, many “our President” and “the President.”
    -I don’t know any church people who want people who lie, cheat or steal in office.
    -I’m not taking away from anything the President represents, or suggesting I want him to fail. I’m actually suggesting the opposite. The post is about more than the President…it’s about leadership…and listening to people has never been the President’s strength.
    -Much of what you say, I completely agree with. For instance, that his family life is admirable, that (as I say in the post), he was dealt a difficult hand, and that money rather than principle often shapes our desires and political leanings rather than the right things.

  9. I will start off by saying, I hate politics. I look at President Obama(respecting the office) like a Minister who arrives at a church and has an uphill battle the whole time eventually leaving never wanting to be involved with churchwork ever again. You in this post, revealed a bias by beginning with disrespecting the office of the President by not addressing him properly. I would say the same if someone called former President George Bush, George. President Obama when he began was an inspiration to all people, only to have groups I believe filled with jealousy to breakup the good feeling by all. I do compare this time to the feeling I felt watching our Congress gathered to sing at the capitol. This historic time we are living in could set us back as a nation to worst times then slavery or 50-60’s for minorities. We have a rich history of worshiping the almighty dollar on our decision making. The 2 years so far under President Obama’s Presidency gave another group hope that has not been here in our country in a while. Those same people or groups of people have more fear today than ever. I’m not talking about Gov’t handout either. Most did not believe this country would ever have a person of color as President of the United States of America. The attacks, which is part of the game, continues to be laced with hate. Lies about his citizenship, even today, lies on how much is spent to protect him overseas. This man is faithful to his wife, and I keep hearing church people wanting more people in office who cheat, steal, and dont pay their taxes. We just got to keep praying that God can prevail over all this junk. My 5 cents.

  10. Stephen, I read several newspapers and magazines from all over the spectrum. It wasn’t a FOX thing at all, it was an AP story I read through their feed. If you watch it on video, one can easily get the idea he’s hearkening Rosa Parks. True, he starts with the car, but that’s very early in the speech. And what of the “enemies” quote, the “elections have consequences” quote, and others I mention? That’s the broader point I’m trying to make…he is foolish with his words.

  11. Tim: Obama never said the back of the bus thing. He said back of the car and Fox turned into back of the bus and then into a race issue. Of course, that’s what Fox is supposed to do, but a discerning listener will see it for what it is.
    I just hope you’re getting news from more than one source.

  12. My state’s voting patterns are inexplicable to me sometimes. I can’t really defend them…other than to say Californians tend to vote through the Propositions when they’ve had enough…only to have judges overturn them all. California almost always has a democratic legislature and a Republican governor. Hmmm..

  13. Good stuff, Sean. It may be impatience, to some extent. On the Ground Zero thing, I didn’t hear people saying they didn’t have the right to build it. It was a matter of propriety.

  14. Honestly, Tim, not knowing the ins and outs of your politics, I would offer this in terms of interpreting the results.
    Nearly everyone I’ve read/heard has said something like this: “If Obama had done what I think is best last night would have been better.” Conservatives saying he should’ve been more conservative; liberals says he should’ve been more liberal. All have their reasons through their own lenses.
    I want to offer a hypothesis I’m making up on the spot. What if what happened last night had more to do with the American voter than those we vote for. What if – as has been the case now in three elections straight – the American voter has adopted a “free agency” view of politics. What I mean is this: We hire someone, if they don’t win the championship in a short amount of time then we cut their contract. Just a thought.
    One caution though, my friend. We should be very discerning about making national decisions based on popular opinion – particularly when it comes to rights and you mentioned the community center a few block from Ground Zero. I don’t think I’m overstating the case, but had the people in my birth state been able to decide on rights based on popular opinion, I would have been born into segregation and my father, who now owns a Doctrate from Ole’ Miss would have never gotten in a state school. All that to say this: The people are sometimes wrong!
    People can argue about when and where, but let us never forget; popularity is no gauge of morality.
    Thanks for posting this.