How Do American Politicians Handle Conflict Management? Should You Follow Their Lead?

How Do American Politicians Handle Conflict Management? Should You Follow Their Lead?
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My Man Joe

The Silliness of BidenI must start with our current leader in the White House, President Obama. He’s had to watch VP Joe Biden who is often overeager and well, let’s just say some of the words coming out of Biden’s mouth are what prompted President Obama to say, “Don’t mess with my man Joe.”

Obama really means this. Or, in other words, please don’t mess with Joe, he’s embarrassed me enough already! Not all of this is related to conflict management for Obama, but damage control is always big time.

In a story by Andrew Malcolm of the LA Times, when Obama appointed VP Biden to be in charge of a “tough, unprecedented oversight effort” of the fiscal stimulus plan in 2009, Obama had to step in front of the cameras and explain old Joe more than once.

Michael Steele of the Daily Caller pointed out in a commentary about Master Joe being in charge of a $862 billion stimulus plan, “…here in the real world almost everyone messes with “Joe,” and in light of a year full of false job reports, phantom Congressional districts, and millions spent on “stimulus” road signs, it is clear that “Joe” has lost whatever edge he might have had.” Joe has an edge? Hmm—funny really if you think about it.

Biden’s blunders are not limited to his failure on overseeing either—which he hasn’t been able to do. Let’s flashback to St. Patrick’s Day 2010. Yep, good Old Joe created real conflict! Teneille Gibson of NBC Washington supplied a “Fresh Episode of Biden’s Blunders”—yet again another time when leader Obama wished he didn’t mess with Joe. In fact, maybe Joe should go!

When discussing St. Patty’s day (with Ireland’s Prime Minister Brian Cowen present) Joe spoke up—“The Taoiseach (Prime Minister) knows a lot about it (the holiday). His Mom lived in Long Island for 10 years or so, God Bless her soul.” The problem here, Cowen’s mother is still alive and breathing albeit his father died…poor Joe, another flub.

He’s Tired of Damage ControlAlso of NBC Washington, reporter Daniel Macht who attended the radio and television Correspondents’ Dinner found no one laughing when Joe said, “You know, a lot of you find it hard to understand why you get second billing. Well, welcome to my world.”

If we think of Obama as a project manager dealing with conflict, Joe Biden does indeed provide much fuel for the fire. So how does he handle these dilemmas?

In a Fox News report in 2009, “Did Obama throw Biden under the bus?” when it came to defending Biden’s comment on (well no one really knows), “There’s still a 30 percent chance we’re going to get it wrong.” Obama was clueless when asked about the comment but provided a comforting statement—much like politicians do—“I think what Joe may have been suggesting – although I wouldn’t put numerical – I wouldn’t ascribe any numerical percentage to any of this – is that, given the magnitude of the challenges that we have, any single thing that we do is going to be part of the solution, not all of the solution.” What solution and what was the whole Biden comment about anyway? A sorry statement leaving Obama the responsibility to clear up whatever 30 percent was and why they’d get it wrong.

But look at Obama’s efforts, you gotta hand it to him, at least a little. He has to play damage control after some of Biden’s flubs and as a project manager, so will you. This means stepping up to bat when team members are incorrect, conveying the wrong things to stakeholders or missing important steps in the project’s progress. Even if you have to stammer your way through it, you must do something as the leader.

But let’s move on—I could go on and on when it comes to Obama and Biden.

Who’s in Charge?

One man is the puppeteer

You have to love the Bush and Cheney era even if you aren’t a Republican. Bush would say one thing, Cheney another and the American public was left with the impression that yes indeedy, Cheney was really in charge. In fact, the photo to the left even makes it look like Cheney is an excellent puppeteer!

But maybe he had to be? Look at his leader, the stuttering, very often wrong words of President Bush or “W” as I like to call him probably caused a lot of stress on the ticker of Cheney over their two terms in office. As Barton Gellman of the Washington Post pointed out in his article, Cheney unleashed his frustration with Bush, “In the second term, he (Cheney) felt Bush was moving away from him and he (Cheney) said Bush was shackled by the public reaction and the criticism he took.” Translation?

“W” really did have to sway away from the conflict around Cheney—it was everywhere from the sexual persuasion of Cheney’s daughter to that let’s kill ‘em all attitude, meaning anyone who wasn’t American. And, well, that whole waterboarding thing didn’t help either. Bush, however, in my opinion, failed miserably when it came to reigning in Cheney and letting him know he was the Chief.

Here, project managers who deal with those overpowering attitudes need to find ways to tame them before their power is too far out of control—something Bush was unable to do.

He Did What?

I really did not do itWhat to do when you’re Al Gore? You want to stand by your man—I mean leader, but that man who did “not have sex with that woman,” did! Gore and his wife Tipper tried their best. Smiles abound and well, the statements from Gore on Clinton? Let’s take a look.

Beth Rowen of Infoplease said when discussing Campaign 2000, “Gore himself has characterized Clinton’s behavior as “awful,” “inexcusable,” and a yearlong “waste of time.”

How Clinton wrangled out of the scandal is well known today, but what other choice did Gore have? He had to step up and say something to the American public and to deny the affair would have hurt any chances he had for Campaign 2000.

False statements or improvable facts offered by teams can make a project manager crazy with anger. But instead, the element of control must come in—much like Gore’s statements. They were brief, strong and to the point. If your team is lying to you, let them know it much the same way.

Too Many to Compare

More fun to comeOf course I’d love to include some insights on Bush and Quayle—always funny memories—but actually when it comes to our politicians and how they handle conflict, there are just too many to compare.

What project leaders can learn from them is:

  • You can take a direct approach to managing conflict.
  • You can side-step the conflict, which won’t work.
  • You can step up to the pump and take responsibility for the conflict

Or, you can fade away, much like the infamous mentioned here. I for one can hardly wait for Campaign 2012. One name here: Sarah Palin—and that, my friends, will make for some interesting, if flawed and absolutely wrong, history.

What politician do you think best utilized conflict management skills? Leave me a comment, because as you know, I love a good laugh and with this group, I’m sure there’s some I haven’t heard.

References and Resources

The opinions here are of the author—unless of course you’d like to add your own!


Malcolm, Andrew - LA Times - “Top of the Ticket” retrieved at

Steele, Michael - Daily Caller - “The Failure of a Stimulus” retrieved at

Macht, Daniel - NBC Washington - “Fresh Episode of Bidens Blunders” retrieved at

Gibson, Teneille - NBC Washington - “Biden Sends Up Administration at Radio-TV Correspondents’ Dinner” retrieved at

Gellman, Barton - FOX News “Did Obama throw Biden Under the Bus?” retrieved at

Rowen, Beth - Infoplease - “Campaign 2000” retrieved at

Image Credits:

Joe Biden - Wikimedia Commons/C.C. 2.0 License

President Obama - Wikimedia Commons/C.C. 3.0 License

Bush and Cheney - Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Clinton and Gore - Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Sarah Palin - Wikimedia Commons/Gnu Free Documentation License