As the Obama Presidency begins, there is much speculation as to what kind of leader will emerge: tough and decisive, or more compromising and deliberative?
The answer to this question, while likely to be more nuanced than simple, will be closely intertwined with the White House’s usage of a digital infrastructure that proved so vital during the campaign.
There are two common misconceptions about President Obama’s rise to power: first, that it was a rapid ascension; and second, that the mainstream media gave him something of a free ride, often replacing the typical inquisition with adoration.
The first point is rooted in Obama’s somewhat surprising victory in the Iowa caucuses on January 3rd, 2008. Yet, for his campaign staff, the victory was less a welcome surprise than the result of a methodical and networked grassroots effort – over many months – to mobilize supporters across the state. The same was true nationally – aided considerably by Obama’s charisma. The two-year effort emphasized a collaborative and wide-ranging movement that slowly, and then more steadily, generated interest and support.
Initially, the traditional (read cable television and newspapers) media greeted Obama warmly but sceptically. Many pundits had early on pronounced on the invincible Clinton campaign, in part reflecting their greater familiarity with an organization exuding communication and control (yet sensing the novelty of the Obama approach Hillary Clinton launched her campaign online with an invitation to converse with Americans).
Whereas Clinton was lauded for her detailed knowledge of policy, many initially shrugged off Obama as vague – an oratorical visionary long on inspiration but short on specifics. This stylistic difference mattered, in better positioning Obama to present himself as an agent of change willing to work across partisan and ideological boundaries. Pragmatism and flexibility were presented as virtues for a new approach to governing.
Moreover, when Obama’s former pastor burst onto the scene with offensive verbal tirades, the traditional media pounced. Yet Obama’s response was a nearly 40 minute speech on race that while hardly conducive to sound bites, resonated with a wider audience of engaged citizens who proved more pensive than most journalists. This extended dialogue then weighed considerably on television and newspaper coverage that swiftly became more moderate (especially when Obama’s polls numbers proved resilient).
The important question for politics and leadership in a digital society is whether or not this new president can practise a steady, collaborative and more discursive approach once in power. In fields such as health care there has been some early promise – with Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Daschle, even prior to taking office, launching an online discussion of problems and reforms.
Indeed, there is much about the Obama movement that is consistent with the broader contours of digital governance, underscored by Tapscott and William’s invocation of mass collaboration as the basis of Government 2.0. A similar message was put forth by Clay Shirky in his recent book, Here Comes Everybody – The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Wikipedia’s successful fundraising effort in December 2008 provides further testament to the power of collective engagement and direct participation.
Nonetheless, a dire economy at home and ongoing and as yet unforeseen crises both domestically and abroad mean that a president cannot afford to be anything less than decisive. Here is the great leadership dilemma of our time – balancing decisive action and clarity with deliberative mechanisms that embrace complexity and uncertainty.
The former has fuelled the traditional world of politics and spin; the Internet becomes a means to mobilize supporters and shape public opinion. The latter, very much a work in progress, is predicated on collective learning and sound reasoning and the very risky proposition politically that the answer may not always be known in advance. The reality at present is that a confident and charismatic President Obama could choose either path: to be decisive and leverage digital platforms to convey his logic and mobilize support; or instead to invite Americans to dialogue and work together through both online engagement and real-time action.
The pressure from the traditional media for the former is enormous. The promise of the latter for societal learning and innovative governance is compelling – yet it’s a new playbook and as such largely untested. The risks and rewards await discovery. President Obama’s choices in this regard will play a major role in shaping politics in a digital age.
Jeffrey Roy is associate professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (firstname.lastname@example.org).