President Obama’s falling approval rating came up during a recent conversation, and it started me thinking: Is he becoming the next Glenn Beck?
The mere thought of this comparison is likely to explode heads on both ends of the political spectrum. So wrap yourself in duct tape and hang with me for a moment. There are interesting similarities and a leadership lesson for everyone.
• Barack Obama and Glenn Beck both have a core audience that loves everything they stand for and say. They also have rabid enemies who despise them. Their fans and detractors are basically the same people. If you love one, you probably hate the other.
• Glenn Beck went from radio DJ to the head of a successful media company with multiple distribution channels. In September 2009, his show on Fox News drew more viewers than all three of the competing time-slot shows on CNN, MSNBC, and HLN (Headline News) combined.
• Barack Obama went from a community organizer in Chicago to President of the United States. He entered office with an 82 percent approval rating – one of the highest in history.
• In April 2011, Glenn Beck and Fox News announced that Beck’s show would leave the air. Though still popular with core viewers and winning its time slot, Beck’s viewership reportedly dropped by approximately one million between January 2010 and January 2011. Likewise, reports that advertisers were avoiding his show and shifting their resources to other Fox News programs were prevalent.
• In August 2011, President Obama’s approval rating dropped to 39 percent according to the Gallup Daily tracking poll. This is a record low. The President maintains strong support among his core constituencies of African Americans, Democrats, and liberals.
The Leadership Lessons
There are three lessons from this quick, and admittedly cursory, comparison:
1. Playing to your core will only take you so far. It is up to you to decide if that is enough.
For Glenn Beck, sticking with your core makes sense. His brand consciously plays to a specific group, and his fans have shown a consistent willingness to support him. Beck’s challenge is to stay perfectly aligned with his core while he creates a trail for others to find him.
For President Obama, sticking with your core is problematic if his goal is re-election. There are options, however. The President can decide that re-election is less of a priority than advancing his ideas. And, he can hope that voters find his opponents less appealing than him. Either way, the stakes rise for achieving success if your core is not sufficient to carry a decision.
2. To influence the masses from the fringe, someone has to move. There are two options for both President Obama and Mr. Beck to influence the mainstream: (a) move to the middle, or (b) move the middle to them.
Both strategies carry risks. If you move to the middle, you can alienate your core. President Obama has experienced glimmers of that response from supporters on the political left. If you wait for the masses to move, time can run out on you. Glenn Beck burned through his stay at Fox News in just over two years. That is not enough time to have a lasting impact on ideas and opinions beyond your core audience.
3. If there is no resistance, there is no change. For all their ideological differences, Obama and Beck share the ability to generate pushback from a large percentage of people. That is a good sign that both are pushing people beyond their comfort zones – which is a necessary ingredient for transformational change.
What this means for you:
• There will be people who love your idea and people who hate your idea. And in all likelihood, there will be a large percentage that is on the fence waiting to be convinced in one direction or the other.
• Leadership is about influence. If you want to be successful influencing the masses, you have to move to them (the quickest solution) or persuade the masses to move to you (the most challenging solution). Be clear on which strategy will work best for your goal.
• If no one is objecting, nothing is really changing. That can be good or bad depending on your goal.
So Will Obama become the next Beck?
The answer to that question will determine the President’s re-election success. If he plays exclusively to his base, he runs the risk of being ousted after one term.
The President increases his opportunities for re-election if he moves to the middle and his opponents help him out with an equally ideological opponent. His base will not desert him in favor of another choice. The question remains whether he can do enough to win over independent voters in the coming 14 months.
And if he isn’t successful? The President – like Beck – will find a home playing to his core audience. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The debate of big ideas needs equally passionate people at both ends of the political continuum.