The limits to Obama’s leadership: idealisation, hope and habitus

An article in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper by journalist Gary Younge considered president Obama’s leadership and discussed what he thinks it is and is not possible for him to achieve in his current circumstances. In doing so Younge demonstrates very similar ideas about leadership  to the ones we have been developing on this blog.Obama

Firstly he notices the tendency for people to idealize or, conversely to demonize Obama, and to attribute his success entirely to his individual capabilities. Saviour or devil, many of Younge’s interlocutors seem to think it is just down to Barack Obama, an essence which is intrinsic to him. Younge criticises the ‘great man’ theory of leadership with its obsession with the individual psychological habits of a particular person, rather than understanding them as being the product of their context, history and society, which have both potential and limits. Similarly, in previous posts we have noted the ways in which leaders become the repositories of people’s worst and best hopes and fears. this is partly due to the dominance of a particular theory of leadership which attributed extraordinarily visionary and motivational powers to leaders, who were thought to be distinct from ‘mere’  managers.

Secondly he notes that Obama is a very progressive president, but only in American terms which is a relative statement. He may be committed to reforming the political process but there is a limit to what he can do. What looks progressive in America does not necessarily look so from a European or particularly a developing world perspective.

Younge warns that where there are great hopes of leadership, so there is the potential for great disappointment and cynicism if this hope is ungrounded in the realities of getting things done in Washington. He notes that Obama has a particular set of political views arising out of the context in which he grew up, was educated and socialised. Obama now finds himself embedded in a web of institutions which constrain what it is and is not possible to do, and how fast change can come. It is one thing to promise to reform Washington politics, it is another, even with majorities in both houses, to bring this about. We have sometimes have an idealized understanding of transformative change: that it can be total and immediate.

Younge does not want to absolve Obama of his responsibilities, but nor does he want to criticise him for not achieving the impossible. he wants him to be assessed for what he has done on earth, not what he might do in utopia.

Perhaps the only slight disagreement I would have with Younge is that he does underestimate the symbolic importance of leaders. The letters and comments that have appeared following Obama’s award of the Nobel peace prize are divided as to whether correspondents think he has yet done enough to deserve it: however, there is wide agreement that he has brought hope. There have been a number of occasions where Obama has gone out of his way to puncture  his over-idealisation when he has admitted that he has ‘screwed up’ over mistakes. In this sense he is a very different leader from those who preceded him being aware both of the importance of hope to human aspiration as well as seeming to be aware of its dangers. Still in realising the leadership is a radically social phenomenon, that Obama will be severely constrained by his own practice and by the practice of  people who are members of institutions which have developed over a long period of time, Younge is being very dispassionate about Obama as president. The president is clearly a uniquely talented individual, but at the same time his particular talents are a product of and will be shaped by the habitus in which he finds himself acting. Both will be forming and being formed by each other at the same time and it is unpredictable what will be possible.


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