News Release: Politics

Sep. 10,  2009

Obama Vulnerable on Leadership, says Emory's Gillespie

While President Barack Obama's speech to the U.S. Congress on health care reform was a landmark in his early presidency, so was the heckling he received by one Republican lawmaker, says Emory political expert Andra Gillespie.

"It's unprecedented," says Gillespie. "And also against the rules. For someone who studies race, you have to wonder if that would have happened if a white man had made the speech."

After all, says Gillespie, George W. Bush never had any heckles over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and no one yelled at Bill Clinton, even though many had dramatic partisan differences with him and some members of Congress called for his impeachment.

"One of the interesting things about race and politics is perceptions of leadership," Gillespie observes. "Obama always has had a problem in leadership compared to his opponents."

In polls done in late 2007 and early 2008 comparing Obama to Hilary Clinton on leadership, Clinton scored higher. "Republican presidential candidate John McCain more than held his own on leadership compared to Obama," says Gillespie.

"Usually in presidential elections, the candidate with stronger leadership numbers wins. Obama was different in this case because he always had stronger numbers for bringing change," she says. People voted for Obama because they wanted change. "Obama may have been an unknown quantity and untested leader, but his charismatic vision for change won voters over."

Historically, the reason why Jesse Jackson lost the democratic nomination in 1988 was his low scores on leadership, says Gillespie.

"Usually, black candidates have an extra hurdle to overcome," she says. "People are not used to seeing blacks in positions of leadership. Because it is early in his presidency, because this summer has been marked by slowing momentum on the health care debate and having others define the issue, it has damaged Obama's credibility in an area where some already may have perceived him as weak. That explains why people say they still like Obama as a person but judge his leadership on health care as being low."

Gillespie is the editor of the forthcoming "Whose Black Politics: Cases in Post-Racial Black Leadership."

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