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What Happened to the Unity? The Aura and Halo Effect

August 12, 2009

The American media is acting astonished that President Obama’s popularity is sliding across a number of issues. According to the Pew Research Centre Obama’s disapproval by Americans exceeds his approval on such issues as the budget deficit, the economy and healthcare. His handling of foreign policy and Iraq still meet with approval, as does his overall job. It was President Lyndon Johnson who referred to the ‘aura and halo effect’ of a new president, but that shortly after being elected his poll numbers would start sliding. Such is the life of a politician, especially in the United States where fixed election dates contribute to the narrow window of opportunity that a new president has to effect new policies and change.

One topic that is being largely avoided by the media is that of unity. Remember when candidate Barack Obama was perceived as the great unifier – the ‘One’ who would bring change to America by rallying people to work together to make a better country? Well that concept didn’t last long. It brings to mind conversations I used to have with a former French teacher from Paris who was in Canada because her husband was on assignment. At the time, race riots were in the news as protesters burnt cars, vandalized and looted stores in the suburbs of Paris. Note: In contrast to North America, the poor and dispossessed are ostracized to the fringes of urban areas.

My teacher was a believer in ‘unity,’ a concept that many native born French believe should supersede any notions of immigrants importing their cultures to France. The ‘One for all, all for one’ (Switzerland’s unofficial motto) is sancrosanct among many French. But look at how the US and Canada approach immigration. In Canada the cultural mosaic metaphor is preferred, while south of the border it’s a cultural melting pot. Of particular note, however, is the much better integration of immigrants to Canada and the US compared to Europe and the United Kingdom.

But at a broader level, ‘unity’ presents even more complexity and tension. At his January 20 inauguration, President Obama spoke about a dispirited country that needed to be unified to address the “…gathering clouds and raging storms” of war and economic problems. There are so many issues requiring immediate attention that unless America comes together it will be next to impossible to achieve meaningful positive change, whether it’s the national debt, liquidity of the financial system, anti-terrorism policies, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, taxation, or healthcare reform. So how did things go off the rails for the President?

To effect change during tumultuous times requires a leader with incredible focus, self-discipline, relationship building skills, intelligence and vision. But of particular importance is the ability to priorize what needs to be done first and to have a strong understanding of the inter-relationships among priorities. Everything no doubt seems very important to the president, and he does possess the traits just mentioned. But we’re living in a unique period, in which there are so many concurrent developments and crises, that it’s almost sheer folly to believe that President Obama’s agenda can realistically be achieved during his first term. Remember the narrow window analogy to effect real change and the increased polarization between the Democrats and Republicans and among various splinter groups of Americans. This fall and winter will prove to be an exciting period in US politics as the President works to advance his legislation agenda, but there is also a huge amount at stake for the country.

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