Polit­ical sci­ence pro­fessor Robert E. Gilbert studies Amer­ican pol­i­tics, par­ties and elec­tions, and the U.S. pres­i­dency. He’s written exten­sively on the impact of ill­ness and psy­cho­log­ical hard­ships on pres­i­dents. Given his back­ground, how likely is it that Pres­i­dent Obama will be a suc­cessful pres­i­dent? Gilbert pro­vides some answers.

What does it take to be a suc­cessful president?

Pres­i­dents should have a sense of per­spec­tive, strong ana­lyt­ical skills, and a feel for pol­i­tics that enables them to con­nect with “the people” as well as the polit­ical elite. They should be con­scious at all times of the var­ious sources of their power and pro­tect those sources vig­i­lantly. They should be careful in their choice of advi­sors and develop advi­sory net­works that enable them to get a broad range of view­points. They should know that, at times, they might have to ignore all of their advi­sors and stand alone. This takes con­sid­er­able courage, even for presidents.

How do the pres­sures that Obama faces (like the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a reces­sion) com­pare with other pres­i­dents? How do you think he will handle them?

Other pres­i­dents have faced sim­ilar, or even greater, chal­lenges. Lin­coln con­fronted a nation that was dis­in­te­grating because of seces­sion and Franklin Roo­sevelt was inau­gu­rated at a time when tens of mil­lions of Amer­i­cans were unem­ployed, poverty-​​stricken and ter­ri­fied; at the same time, storm clouds were appearing in Europe. Serious chal­lenges, how­ever, can lead to strong and effec­tive lead­er­ship. Obama should realize that Lin­coln and Roo­sevelt are now widely seen as being among the greatest of U.S. pres­i­dents, pre­cisely because of the grave chal­lenges they faced and the skill and imag­i­na­tion they showed in responding to them.


People have remarked that Obama is cool, calm and unflap­pable under pres­sure and that he can sep­a­rate his ego from his decision-​​making processes. Where does this come from and will it serve him well as president?

During a stren­uous cam­paign, Barack Obama always remained cool and calm. In this respect, he is sim­ilar to Pres­i­dent Kennedy whose sense of detach­ment was related to the ill­nesses he suf­fered as a child. Since he con­fronted death in his boy­hood and expected a pre­ma­ture death as an adult, Kennedy approached crisis sit­u­a­tions in an unemo­tional and mea­sured way. This can be seen during the Cuban Mis­sile crisis, when he over­ruled vir­tu­ally all of his advisers and insisted on a naval blockade — rather than an air strike — against Cuba.

Pres­i­dent Obama’s cool­ness and sense of detach­ment seem also related to his expe­ri­ences in early life. First, his bira­cial back­ground surely led to some ten­sions and he had to deal with the void cre­ated by an absentee father. Later, he derived from a step­fa­ther what he once described as “a pretty hard­headed assess­ment of how the world works.” Being able to stand back and ana­lyze prob­lems rather than becoming emo­tion­ally involved in them should be an asset. Pres­i­dents must con­trol their emo­tions. Those who fail at this task often fail more broadly.


How do you think Pres­i­dent Obama’s age and rel­a­tive inex­pe­ri­ence in national pol­i­tics will affect his presidency?

I think it is impor­tant to realize that Pres­i­dent Obama is not the youngest pres­i­dent in U.S. his­tory. Theodore Roo­sevelt was 42 when he became pres­i­dent, Kennedy was 43, Clinton was 46. Obama is 47.

It might be helpful to remember that some of the pres­i­dents with the greatest overall “expe­ri­ence levels” in their ear­lier polit­ical careers fared very poorly as pres­i­dent. James Buchanan comes to mind here. He had much polit­ical expe­ri­ence, in fact a glit­tering polit­ical resume. Yet his per­for­mance in the White House has been rated widely as a failure.

What advice do you have for Pres­i­dent Obama?

First, I would advise Pres­i­dent Obama that his impres­sive pop­u­larity will inevitably begin to decline and that he should be pre­pared to push key ele­ments of his pro­gram sooner rather than later. Second, I would rec­om­mend that while his efforts to strengthen ties with con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans are entirely appro­priate, he must not take his own con­gres­sional party for granted. Third, I would advise him to savor the fact that he has been pre­sented with an oppor­tu­nity that only 42 other Amer­i­cans have been given since 1789. He now stands on a very con­spic­uous stage, and he will be judged on his per­for­mance there. This should be a sobering thought for any president.