History — and hundreds of millions of people around the world — will mark today as the day that the first African-American takes office as President of the United States of America. It is not only a historic event because Barack Obama is of a different race than all prior Presidents, but because his race was enslaved by the very same country (albeit not the same people) which he now leads.
Obama has a lot to do, and I fear that expectations are so high and the work so expansive, he may not be as successful as we all would like.
History will likely judge George W. Bush’s presidency as decidedly mixed. His litany of failures are well-known — a failure to stave off the largest recession since the Great Depression, a failure to devise and implement a realistic strategy in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and a failure to have a vision for the future that didn’t include government spying on every one of its citizens (eerily similar to George Orwell’s predictions in the book, 1984) in the name of “terrorism.” While acting decisively in Afghanistan, he then went on to get us involved in a Vietnam-like quagmire of an occupation in neighboring Iraq. He has been a disconnected President that seems genuinely surprised that he got the job — not just once, but twice.
People will turn to Obama and expect that his Presidency will be able to not only fix all of these mistakes, but do so in a timely manner. Nothing can be further from the truth. While he may indeed be successful in closing down the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, extracting the U.S. troops from Iraq is likely a multi-year process. Repairing the international goodwill and reputation of the U.S. will take even longer (although, arguably, Bush and Rice have been working to do that in the past year or two).
The President has little direct influence on the economy, but given that so many of the financial sectors are driven by psychology and not actual financial data, a new regime may be just what the Wall Street doctors ordered to restore lenders’ and investors’ confidence. Obama’s own economic stimulus plan — $800 billion worth — will likely pass, as everyone believes it necessary. But what actual effect it’ll have is anyone’s guess, as employers continue to lay off more workers than at any time in our history since the Great Depression.
So turning back to psychology, what attributes might best predict Presidential greatness? A researcher named Simonton did a study in 1981 that found the single most attribute correlated with presidential greatness was years in office. Other attributes that increase a president’s perceived greatness are an assassination or assassination attempt and the number of books he published before becoming president. The number of war years that the president presides over also predicts a president’s greatness. Being a professional soldier before becoming president and any scandals while in the White House decrease a president’s greatness.
What is especially interesting are the factors that do not predict Presidential greatness:
Family background, personal characteristics, education, occupation, and political experiences provided few if any predictors of presidential performance, although succession to office through the vice presidency had a generally negative effect.
That last bit might explain why Al Gore couldn’t get elected, as the U.S. public seems to have a hard time taking vice presidents very seriously when they take a run at the higher office. Simonton summarized their greatness predictors:
The greatest presidents have longer administrations, lead the nation through more years of war, offer targets for unsuccessful assassination attempts, avoid major scandals, and publish many books before entering office.
These variables explain 75% of the variance of presidential greatness according to the researcher. How does this bode for Obama?
Obama has written three books and will likely lead the nation through at least another 4 years of war as he removes our troops from Iraq and continues work in Afghanistan. Hopefully he will not be the target of any assassination attempts and can avoid any major scandals, such as those that plagued his Democratic predecessor. He also has not been a professional soldier, which actually works to his favor in history’s eyes.
All of which initially bodes well for Obama, at least from the perspective of predictive psychological research.
We join the rest of the nation — and, in fact, the world — in watching today’s inauguration and wishing Barack Obama the best of luck with leading the country through one of its most difficult times in the past century.
Simonton, D.K. (1981). Presidential greatness and performance: Can we predict leadership in the White House? Journal of Personality, 49(3), 306-323.