POWER CHANGE: Scholars analyze Obama’s prospects
January 9, 2009
By Clifton B. Parker
President-elect Barack Obama will inherit an agenda of staggering uncertainty as the nation struggles with a fading economy while stuck in two wars overseas.
The recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Gaza Strip is an example of the difficult issues awaiting the new president once he takes office Jan. 20.
Obama’s success, UC Davis scholars say, depends on his temperament and the decisions he makes. Some historians compare his challenges to those facing Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt when they moved into the Oval Office.
Profiling presidential minds
Dean Simonton, psychology professor and the author of the books, Why Presidents Succeed and Greatness: Who Makes History and Why, says a president’s personality is as critical to how they perform on behalf of the country as the situational factors involved.
“Certain types of presidents have a higher probability of being successful no matter what the conditions,” Simonton said. “These presidents are highly intelligent, complex thinkers who feature an exceptional openness to alternative points of view.”
Simonton believes Obama has an “unusually intelligent, inclusive mind.” And while his motives appear well-grounded, he added, one drawback is that the president-elect does not have much of a political track record on which to judge his inclinations.
He said President Bush, while skilled at projecting leadership and integrity, was not a reflective president who analyzed his decisions either before or after making them. Rather, he surrounded himself with people who told him what he wanted to hear. While Bush is leaving office with historic lows in popularity, Obama is entering with unprecedented expectations.
Simonton said Obama faces “tremendously, perhaps even unrealistically, high expectations” for solutions on deepening problems in the economy, health care, the environment, energy, the Middle East, Iraq Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan-India, China-Tibet, and more.
“Lots of what’s in his in-box will be an inheritance from the previous administration,” he said. “His damage control will involve undoing the damage of the previous eight years” at a time when federal revenues are decreasing and the national debt is increasing.
Simonton said: “This is certainly not an enviable position. That’s one reason why comparisons to FDR are not too far off. Although he was able to pull it off, he needed World War II to help him out.”
Perception is reality
Professor Kim Elsbach of the Graduate School of Management studies how leaders acquire and maintain images, identities and reputations. The author of the book, Organizational Perception Management, she says a strong leader typically seeks to project images of control, competency, consistency and certainty.
She gives Obama high marks on the first two, and question marks on the latter two.
“He has had some trouble with liberals in his consistency during his cabinet and adviser choices, since most of these seem to be centrists, and may appear inconsistent with the “change” message that he was touting during his campaign,” said Elsbach, adding the president-elect has also hedged a bit on certainty by suggesting that change will be slow coming and difficult.
“It’s important to be clear that I am talking only about perceptions or images of strong leadership, and not actual leadership,” she said.
Obama needs to be careful that his desire to project images of control and competency, Elsbach said, do not lead him to isolate himself from wise advisers and not seek out or take help from these advisers.
“This can lead to poor decision making based on incomplete information,” she said.
Perfection, of course, is not possible. But growth in office is, she said.
“Great presidents do make mistakes, but they learn from them,” said Elsbach, “rather than deny them.”
Political science professor Miroslav Nincic expects significant foreign policy changes with the incoming Obama administration.
“Conceptually, the Obama foreign policy will start from very different premises,” said Nincic, an international relations scholar who studies war, U.S. foreign policy, national security, the arms race and public attitudes toward war.
“It will not assume that the world is an arena where good confronts evil, and where the former will prevail when this world is remolded in the U.S. image.”
As a result, this means viewing the world as a “complex community, where simple ethical distinctions rarely apply and where a variety of value systems can peacefully compete,” he said.
Obama’s approach “will assume that the promotion of a desirable world depends more on a nation’s moral authority than its coercive power, and it will try to restore this authority,” Nincic said.
At the same time, Obama has sent signals that he will be firm against terrorism and protect America’s legitimate security interests.
Obama has already selected a number of high-profile people for his national security team and has signaled that issues like climate change will be a top priority.
“The message it sends is that of a very self-confident national leader,” he said.
There is, however, some risk of a clash of rivals, especially involving the secretary of state-designate (Hillary Clinton). I say this because secretaries of state could rarely before claim their own domestic political constituency, at least not to this extent,” said Nincic.
Obama will put a greater focus on the war in Afghanistan. “While Bush would not increase resources committed to Afghanistan at the expense of the war in Iraq, Obama almost certainly will do so.”
On Russia, where relations deteriorated badly under Bush, Obama confronts a serious challenger to the world order.
“Much will depend on Russia. I suspect, however, that a chilly modus-vivendi (an agreement to disagree) will emerge with increased deference to Russia’s regional interests, and a decreased commitment to NATO membership for Georgia and the Ukraine,” said Nincic.
As for North Korea, the approach may be a wait-and-see one.
“North Korea is most critical,” he said. “It is unlikely that the Kim regime has many more years left. The task is to promote transition to a new regime via a soft landing rather than a hard landing, when the regime does implode.”
Nincic said that North Korea’s nuclear weapons, as well as China’s regional interests, makes this a highly important area of U.S. interest.
Combustible Middle East
Zeev Maoz, political science professor and director of the International Relations Program, expects the Obama administration will focus on changing America’s image in the Middle East.
“He will at least try to open negotiations with Iran, speed up the process of pulling out troops from Iraq, and will invest much more energy in helping resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict,” he said.
Of course, solving the Middle East conundrum is no easy task, as recent events in the Gaza Strip illustrate.
Maoz said that while Obama’s choice of Clinton as secretary of state is a good sign for Israel, much depends on the outcome of the Israeli elections in February 2009.
“If the right-wing parties come to power, as current polls indicate, then Obama’s administration will have to put much more pressure on the Israelis,” he said.
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