I’m often asked what I think of Barack Obama’s leadership—how well I think he is doing, and more specifically whether, I see in it aspects of culturally mature leadership. The short version: I think he has made some major policy missteps and often fails when it comes to communication. But I also admire his leadership and see in him more cultural mature capacity than any other US President to this point. His is culturally mature leadership of a first step sort. Still that is of no small significance.
The most immediately visible evidence for culturally mature elements is for him, I’m sure, not a cause for celebration. He is getting clobbered from both political extremes. Such evidence is also hardly rigorous. Simple incompetence could produce the same result, as could basic middle of the road advocacy given the extent of today’s polarization. That the criticism from each pole is so often irrational—making claims based not just of differing opinion, but very often on a blatant ignoring of the facts—while even less an obvious call for celebration, is what we would expect if first steps toward culturally mature leadership are at least part of the cause.
Better we look to characteristic of his leadership. In Cultural Maturity—A Guidebook for the Future, I list a small handful of characteristics that we should see when cultural maturity begins to be present in political leadership: “Mature leadership attempts to put complex issues in perspective. It seeks to avoid polarizing and making enemies, at home and abroad, but does not shying away from strong stances. It inspires when possible while also acknowledging real uncertainties and the limits to what we can sometimes achieve. It sincerely strives to get beyond partisan pettiness. And, at its best, it is as concerned with the long-term, sometimes the very long-term, as with the immediate. We see each of these characteristics with Barack Obama’s explicitly pragmatic leadership style.
Policy errors have certainly undermined his success. I noted a couple early on in his first administration—related to health care and Middle East policy—and then expressed hope that he would quickly get them behind him Like Presidents before him, he underestimated the difficulty of addressing health care reform—the intensity of feelings the issue would provoke and the political capital even limited gains would expend. And I suspect the depth of involvement in Afghanistan reflected more his desire during the election to not seem weak while in advocating diminishing involvement in Iraq than deeply held conviction. These issues have continued to demand his attention throughout his time in office and limited his ability to turn his attention to other concerns.
Obama’s ability to focus his attention on issues that might more explicitly reflect culturally leadership has also certainly been limited by needing to give attention to problems that were no fault of his own—in particular, the war in Iraq and the economic collapse. I think he in fact lead admirably in each case, but, again, dealing with these concerns consumed great amounts of time, energy, and political capital.
Obama’s style has also sometimes gotten in the way. Pragmatism doesn’t need to seem distant and academic. But there, like most critics, I’m asking too much. We should not expect Barack Obama’s leadership to do more than make a start beyond Cultural Maturity’s threshold. Using that measure as a yardstick, he is not doing too badly. Unlike many people, I applaud him, and am grateful that a person of his character is in office in such overwhelmingly difficult times.
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