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Leadership and the Tricky Politics of Public Opinion

Getting the public behind you is critical, but it isn't easy. Nobody did it better than Franklin D. Roosevelt.

We usually think of politics in two ways: as the "big-P" politics of campaigns and referendums -- noisy, zero-sum contests that get lots of public attention -- and the "small-P" politics of gaining approval for policies and projects. These are the non-zero-sum contests of compromise and tradeoffs that revolve around regulatory approvals, planning board and city council votes, and the occasional state law.

But there's a third version, a kind of meta-politics that's critical to progress but rarely gets noticed. It's the politics of public opinion. How important is public opinion? Listen to Abraham Lincoln: "With public sentiment," Lincoln said, "nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions."

But how, exactly, do you mold public sentiment? And are most public officials good at it? The answer to the second question is no. The answer to the first can best be understood by turning to another president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, second only to Lincoln, was the greatest molder of public opinion ever to occupy the White House.

Roosevelt's masterpiece was changing American attitudes about involvement in World War II. Yes, Pearl Harbor was the defining moment, but by December 1941 public opinion had already changed greatly, as Lynne Olson tells us in her recent book, "Those Angry Days." And that was Roosevelt's work.

He could not have faced a more daunting task. There was a strict "neutrality act" passed in the mid-1930s that banned arms sales to any nation at war. America's own military was a shell. (Weapons were so scarce that only a third of U.S. soldiers and sailors had ever trained with them.) Congress was overwhelmingly opposed to intervention, and so were the American people.

So what did FDR do? He bided his time (to the despair of the increasingly desperate British) as he set in motion several forces that changed public opinion. The most important: He quietly encouraged nonpartisan citizens' groups to begin campaigning for American support for the Allies. Then Roosevelt (to all appearances) gradually acceded to their demands, first in asking for changes in the neutrality act, then in offering more generous aid to the British, then in lobbying for a buildup of the military, and finally in asking Congress for a peacetime draft. It was a step-by-step process that took two years' time, with Roosevelt never more than a half-step in front of the public.

Today we would call this "leading from behind": letting others be the point people for change as you remain in the background. It requires a secure person to lead this way. Secure in two ways: First, emotionally secure enough to let others occupy the spotlight. Second, secure in the messiness but ultimate utility of public debate.

And this brings me to the single most serious mistake public officials make in trying to advance policies and change public opinion: They spring surprises. They announce sweeping policy proposals long before the public has accepted that there's even a problem. When they do it this way, they're often shocked by the backlash.

It is much better to do policy the FDR way: First, air the problem and its consequences. Then step aside and let others debate its seriousness and possible solutions. As the demand for action rises, step back into the discussion with a reasonable way forward. (And, yes, along the way you can do things to encourage the debate.)

Does this diminish your reputation by making you look indecisive? Well, Roosevelt was accused of that in 1940 and 1941. But reach in your pocket and pull out a dime. Which leader's face do you find on it? Roosevelt's, or one of his many critics'?

President of Civic Strategies Inc.
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