February 25th, 2010
10:30 AM ET

Dear President Obama #402: It's good to be good, but better to be lucky

Reporter's Note: President Obama is preparing for his big bipartisan meeting on health care. I’m preparing for a town hall meeting with voters here in Texas. I’m also preparing my daily letter to the White House, which hopefully he’ll have time to read amid his busy schedule.

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Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

Dear Mr. President,

Hooray! The sun has returned to Texas and I’m shedding fleece like an Alpaca in spring. Thank goodness. I and the rest of the gang on the bus were taking on certain paranoid attributes of the guys in Ice Station Zebra for a while. And what’s this I hear? Another winter storm bearing down on the northeast? I always try to be helpful, but I’ve had it with winter at this point. I should make it home by the weekend, but if the forecast does not improve I may just stay here. If you need help shoveling, count me out. Call Biden.

I went for a walk down by the river here in Austin with the mayor this afternoon, and it was quite nice. Mayors, as you know, can be a mixed bunch. Some know a lot, and some not so much; some are highly political, and some are more practical; and some are easy to talk with and that was Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

The fundamental question I posed as we strolled out of City Hall and down to the water’s edge was this: What has made Austin so successfully during this recession, while other cities have struggled so hard? He worked his way through the litany that I’ve heard from various sources this week. They have a broad base of diverse employers, including a tremendous number of small businesses. They also enjoy strong blocks of steady jobs in state government and the universities around town…those aren’t going anywhere. They have a vibrant arts community, good restaurants, a reasonable cost of living and the commutes, while worsening, aren’t yet crushing.

But it was Mayor Leffingwell’s first answer that most interested me. He said, “We’ve been lucky. We had several things in the right place at the right time, and they’ve come together for the good of our community.” I’m paraphrasing, of course, but it was pretty much like that.

I believe most of us make our luck. Through hard work, talent, intelligence, and persistence, we find ways to make success or at least to put ourselves in a likely position to succeed. But I’ve also seen plenty of people who have done all those things, and yet failed in their quest to…oh say, open a bakery, or make the softball team, or get a promotion at work.

In that context, many of the cities which are doing comparatively well in this recession actually made good decisions long ago that pointed them in the right direction. But I admired the mayor’s honesty in his answer, because I think it was one way of pointing out that plenty of places are suffering now through no fault of their own; markets changed, and politics changed, and technology changed in ways that they could not have effectively predicted.

Sometimes I think it is too easy for people to heap praise on places that succeed, like Austin, and to call them prescient; and simultaneously too simple to pile scorn on places that struggle, like Flint, Michigan, and call them ill-prepared for changing times, as if they should have seen it coming.

Maybe they should have. Or maybe they were unlucky. Or maybe a little of both.

Anyway, those were a few of my thoughts walking down by the river. Hope all is well with you and that your big summit on health care doesn’t turn into a handcuff-steel-cage-grudge match with the Congressional crowd. I suppose you’ll be too busy to call, so let’s just try for Friday.



Follow Tom on Twitter @tomforemancnn.

Find more of the Foreman Letters here.

soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Alex Valiao (New York)

    Another great perspective. It may be true some people are luckier or have a gut instinct on averting misfortunes. What interest me in the answer of Mayor Leffingwell is not about luck but rather 'having several things at the right place at the right time". It doesn't sound much about luck but rather plain "common sense, "prioritization",' and 'doing the right thing" kind of doing business. Texas is unique in comparison to the other 49 states. But the 3 fundamentals doesn't change anywhere in the world.

    February 25, 2010 at 11:44 am |
  2. Tim Gibson

    The moving ice pack of the northeast is best when viewed in Super Panavision. It is a reminder that superpower civilian cooperation cannot rely on the fortune of others when you find yourself trapped beneath the ice.

    The guilty pleasure in the diversity of community, small businesses, education and steady jobs are the backdrop, the special effects in avoiding a nuclear meltdown. It can be open at both ends yet remain unflooded or uncrushed.

    Often a mission that is commissioned too important to abort becomes not a rescue of the civilians, by the secert watching from nearby. It may be that the effort is "so flat and conventional that it's three moments of interest are an embarrassment."

    Know the facts: the cost, the neighborhood and the demand. Solid plans make for solid business, minus the doughnut holes.

    February 25, 2010 at 10:24 am |
  3. Marie N (Portland,Oregon)

    I'm with you on this posting for a change. Like Kenny Rogers in "The Gambler" you've got to know when to hold them and when to fold them. I know Obama would make a shrewd chess player...it remains to be seen if he can really play poker. Can he read a bluff? Because you know there will be some at the table who will try to game him. But enough about gambling. Those risks are inherent when you attempt to do anything that has not been done before. At this point what we really need is a hostage negotiator because that is what the Congress has been doing with this healthcare bill. And the hostages are all of us...those with insurance and especially those without.

    February 25, 2010 at 9:05 am |
  4. Lori

    You sure get around.

    I think this is a matter of survival of the fittest. Part luck and mostly paying attention to what's going on around us and acting accordingly. Thank God for news reporters. Have a wonderful day!

    February 25, 2010 at 9:03 am |
  5. Ms Kimberlyn Neal

    This was very refrehing to read this morning, thank you very much.

    February 25, 2010 at 9:01 am |
  6. Jed Brown, Utah

    three people each own a crop that they trade; corn, beef, and wheat to make bread. If something happens beyond the control of the person who makes corn, is it their fault that they will struggle to survive through trade?

    February 25, 2010 at 8:48 am |