Q&A with Robert E. Gilbert: What it takes to be president
Gilbert

Political science professor Robert E. Gilbert has written extensively on the impact of illness and psychological hardships on presidents.

January 26, 2009

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.

For more information, please contact Lauren McFalls at 617-373-5460 or at l.mcfalls@neu.edu.

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