By Dalton Karwacki
President Barack Obama has shown a new type of leadership in a complex time, according to a panel held on Wednesday.
Dr. Hazel-Anne Johnson, from the Department of Management and Human Resources; Dr. Harvey Kornberg, of the political science department; and Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, were the featured speakers. The panel, entitled Leadership in a Time of Social and Political Change: Impact of Barack Obama’s Election, was part of Rider’s Unity Days series.
Johnson started off the discussion by talking about some of the psychological ideas surrounding Obama’s election and administration. He has, according to Johnson, avoided a phenomenon known as groupthink. Groupthink can be seen when a group of people unthinkingly share the same viewpoints. It refers to the way supporters of a leader can drown out the voices of any opposition, at the expense of compromise.
“One of the things I thought was very interesting about President Obama was that, in choosing people to work with, he has chosen individuals who don’t necessarily believe in every single thing he does,” Johnson said. “And he actually is kind of reaching over to these people who disagree with him.”
This has, in theory at least, helped to encourage debate and compromise, she said.
Kornberg discussed Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize and what he believes to have been the reasoning behind the award. The Nobel Committee announced on Oct. 9 that President Obama was to receive the prize “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”
“Notice that this was said about a president who has been in office for only about nine months,” Kornberg said.
Obama won the Nobel, he said, essentially because his policies are such a drastic departure from many of George W. Bush’s. Bush, Kornberg said, relied more on unilateral action and coercion, whereas Obama has reopened communication with the nations of the world. This change in policy, he said, has already begun to show signs of starting to ease some of the tensions between the U.S. and the international community.
“The point I’m trying to make here is that the Nobel Peace Prize committee, in awarding the president of the United States, with only nine months in office, is obviously not focusing on concrete achievements,” said Kornberg. “Rather, it is focusing on a style, a mood, a change in the approach of the most powerful nation on the planet. I think that, really, what the committee is saying is, ‘Right on. This is what the United States should be doing.’”
Dworkin discussed his take on why the style of Obama’s presidency is different from any other presidency in recent memory. He began by giving a comparison of Obama’s approval rating to those of the past several presidents at this point in their administrations.
Obama currently has a 57 percent approval rating. This is very similar to the approval ratings of Reagan, who was at 56 percent, George H. W. Bush with 62 percent, Clinton with 53 percent, and George W. Bush at 56 percent.
The thing that separates Obama from his predecessors, Dworkin said, is that he has tackled considerably more contentious issues at this point in his presidency.
“You have seen, effectively, a stimulus package, the bailout of General Motors, which included the firing of a CEO, movement on financial services reform, movement on health care, the winding down of the war in Iraq,” said Dworkin. “Now, he has done a lot of things, and these are not necessarily non-controversial things, and yet he’s still at 57 percent.”
Dworkin explained that much of the reason Obama has managed to maintain such an approval rating is that he has engaged in what Dworkin called the politics of maturity. He has, according to Dworkin, put away the childish politics of the past and reached out to the opposing side, instead of simply defeating them and calling them un-American for disagreeing.
He also said that Obama may be benefiting from the controversial agenda itself. It shows, according to Dworkin, that Obama is willing to sacrifice ratings in order to deal with controversial issues.
The panel concluded by returning to Obama’s Nobel Prize award. There was a general consensus that, while the Nobel Committee clearly made the decision to encourage Obama to continue his current policies, it remains to be seen whether he will truly deserve the prize in the long run.