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Defining Change
by J. F. Kelly, Jr. 2/29/08

Voters are hungry for change, say the presidential candidates, each of whom promises to provide that longed-for change. But what exactly do they mean by change? What specific changes do they have in mind and how do they plan to implement them?

It’s easy enough to talk about change. The challenge lies in the implementation. Large bureaucracies like the federal government abhor change and members tend to resist it because they fear the uncertainty that change brings. They generally prefer the devil they know to the one they don’t. Stakeholders in entrenched organizational cultures invariably view change with suspicion.

J.F. Kelly, Jr.

J.F. Kelly, Jr. is a retired Navy Captain and bank executive who writes on current events and military subjects. He is a resident of Coronado, California. [go to Kelly index]

Effecting transformational change, therefore, is perhaps the greatest leadership challenge of all. To accomplish it successfully, the leader must first understand the existing culture and have a clear vision of how the organization will look and operate when transformed. Such a visionary leader, in my view, was Ronald Regan with whom Barack Obama is sometimes compared. To be sure, both are thought of as eloquent and inspiring speakers, able to motivate and lead audiences and followers but along very different paths. Regan was a conservative of the Goldwater school. Obama is one of the Senate’s most liberal members as demonstrated by his voting record. Charisma and charm are indeed important qualities in facilitating the delivery of a message but it is, of course, the message itself that counts and that message must consist of more than hollow platitudes and generalities.

Mr. Obama has attracted an almost cult-like following. His message of change resonates with younger voters and with others who are turned off by politics as usual. But he is rather short on specifics regarding just what he would change, what he would change it to and how he would go about doing it. For example, he promises to promptly end our military involvement in Iraq. How will that be done safely and without leaving chaos behind? Saying that he will discuss it with the military leadership is a logical first step but what if they tell him that it would be a huge and costly mistake? Does he then proceed against military advice? His enthusiastic supporters don’t appear to be asking for many details on this and other proposed changes. Perhaps their notion of change is more simplistic; a fresh, new face as president and an African-American at that.

Both Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain claim to be agents of change, also. Certainly, a woman in the Oval Office would represent a monumental change. But her voting record suggests that she, too, would pursue the same liberal tax and spend policies favored by her party and its candidates. Sen. McCain’s claim as a change agent rests largely on his record as a maverick, able to reach across party lines to break gridlock and achieve bipartisan solutions. His record suggests that he will change other things as well including the practice of earmarks and the influence of lobbyists and special interests in Washington. He has also demonstrated by his record and actions that he will act independently to arrive at decisions which may, at times, run counter to his party’s position on key issues. Such change would be refreshing indeed.

But the election in November should be less about change than about the differing philosophies of governance the voters must choose between. The reality is that the public has a vastly inflated notion of how much change a president, however gifted and eloquent, can actually effect. Talk is cheap and politicians will say what they have to say to get elected but organizational inertia, the vastness of the federal government and its built-in checks and balances create a high degree of resistance to significant change.

More important will be the philosophy of government that the voters opt for: one that says that the government must solve all problems, be all things to everyone and therefore grow or one that espouses smaller government, less regulation and more entrepreneurial approaches to problem solving.  The other critical issue the voters must decide upon is how much value they place in choosing a strong and experienced leader as commander-in-chief of the armed forces in what remains an extremely dangerous world. CRO

copyright 2008 J. F. Kelly, Jr.



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