US President Barack Obama

Obama needs to show Americans he's still 'one of them'

To win a second term in office, President Obama needs to persuade voters that he is still one of them – and recapture some of the charisma that helped propel him to the top four years ago. However, this is clearly a challenge given the economic difficulties facing many Americans.

Writing in Scientific American Mind, Professors Alex Haslam of the University of Exeter and Stephen Reicher of St Andrews describe how presenting themselves as ‘one of us’ is central to leaders being seen as a charismatic.

Rather than being an inherent personal quality, they identify charisma as something that is constructed through a partnership between leaders and followers. They also suggest that we come to a collective view about a leader’s charisma as a result of believing he or she is representing us as a group and taking our interests forward. In the case of Obama, this means that he is far more likely to be viewed as charismatic by Democrats than by Republicans. This point is confirmed in research that Haslam and Reicher have conducted with University of Exeter PhD student Niklas Steffens. Their research indicates that while Mitt Romney is seen as more charismatic by Republicans than by Democrats, those Republicans still find him relatively uncharismatic, largely because they do not see him as ‘one of us’.

The researchers argue that whether they are running nations, businesses, or sports teams, charismatic leaders need to follow three ‘Rs’. ‘Reflecting’ involves learning about the culture and history of the group that they lead. ‘Representing’ refers to the need to be seen as someone who stands for, and who stands up for, the group. ‘Realising’ is about turning the things the group values into reality: essential for charisma to be sustained over time. In these terms, one of the key problems Obama faces is that that this third ‘R’ has proved hard to deliver on.

Professor Alex Haslam of Psychology at the University of Exeter said: “Throughout history we see examples of great leaders appearing to be both ‘of us’ and ‘for us’. This is the essence of charisma and was a key element of Obama’s campaign in the 2008 presidential election. The economic challenges he has struggled to overcome since then have made it harder for him to be seen to as having ‘done it for us’; this means that many Democrats now see him as less charismatic than they did four years ago.”

Professor Reicher added, “If you look back in history, you see that Presidents like Franklin Roosevelt succeeded because Americans felt that they had a personal relationship with them. The paradox is that this came not through anything personal, but from a strong sense of shared group membership. Accordingly, in all US elections, a key battleground is candidates’ capacity to define American-ness. This election is no different, it’s just that the battle is on a new site.”

Date: 25 July 2012