When the honeymoon is over, real leadership begins

Six months into his term, Barack Obama’s high approval ratings are holding steady in the latest polls. Yet, the WSJ/NBC poll released on June 17 shows slippage from 61% to 56% in terms of voter satisfaction. Individual policy decisions such as the closing of Guantanamo, the use of torture, and deficit budgeting are increasingly contested by voters. The more Obama governs, the more he owns the problems he inherited. With the glowing tributes of the first 100 days behind us, it is reasonable to conclude that the honeymoon is beginning to end. For some pundits, it’s already over.

Most presidential honeymoons have a limited shelf life. In a context of tough economic times and two wars, the Obama honeymoon has lasted a suprisingly long time. The key element to his durability is the gap between his personal popularity numbers and the policies he advocates. When the gap favours personal popularity or reinforces the likability factor—as it does in Obama’s case—it gives the president some leeway and political advantage. In this case, Obama remains highly popular while his opponents, the Republicans, have a very low positive rating of 25 per cent. This means that Obama has an opportunity to exercise some real leadership by leveraging these positive personal numbers to advance his policies against opponents who, while tenacious, don’t have the political capital to block the president’s agenda. When they do try to get in the way, Obama has not hesitated to go over the heads of Congress and deliver his message directly to the people.

Throughout his election campaign, Obama showed remarkable resilience when faced with an occasional drop in popularity. His campaign in 2007 started slowly and he was practically eliminated by the end of the year as a serious threat to the frontrunner, Hillary Clinton. However, his efficient organization and his successful fundraising abilities kept him afloat and he soon regained his composure. When Hillary Clinton rebounded in April and May of 2008 during the Pastor Wright controversy, Obama kept his cool, recovered the lost ground, and captured the nomination in June. These were vital tests which provided the opportunity to exercise leadership when faced with adversity. As a frontrunner, he was able to fend off the attacks, adjust his message, and keep momentum. If his campaign performance is any indication, pundits should be cautious about predicting Obama’s eventual downfall.

The WSJ/NBC poll hints at some challenges ahead. The survey shows that the economy remains the top priority. With high unemployment numbers continuing to rise, the American public remains skeptical about Obama’s effectiveness. The budget deficit seems to be emerging as the major preoccupation over stimulating the economy. As well, health care has now become the signature issue for the administration and much of his legacy will be riding on achieving some significant reform in this area.

Meanwhile, gay activists who enthusiastically supported Obama are suddenly and vocally cooling off, reinforcing the notion that the honeymoon is over. Neoconservatives are also calling on Obama for an aggressive interventionist stand in favor of the Iranian opposition. These are the same people who urged George W. Bush to invade Iraq based on faulty information. Still, there is a constituency in the US that sees Obama’s justifiable restraint regarding Iran as a sign of weakness.

Now, the real test is about to begin. Obama has acted in nearly every area he has promised. Some moves have been outright daring and audacious, while others are more prudent. Generally, the public likes Obama and how he has governed. They are, however, less certain about his policies and the direction of the country. This is to be expected in the first term of a presidency. The challenge for the president will be to convince the public, the legislators and other world leaders that he is guiding his country along the right course. That is when we will see his real leadership skills.

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