Thursday, October 16, 2008

hold the confetti

America's Declining Confidence in Leaders

-jeffery mcnary

If it’s at all possible to be more underappreciated, 80% of Americans now believe that the U.S. faces a leadership crisis. This, according to a poll just released by the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the Merriman River Group, is up, or down depending upon where one stands, is up 77% from 2007 and 65% in 2005.

Not surprisingly, a significant number of Americans, 60%, say they have not much or no confidence in the leadership of the executive branch, and are failing to get the leadership they need from President Bush and his advisers. This is up from 49% last year, and it would be a stretch to say there is anything other than a pall of disappointment shrouding the current administration.

The poll results reveal some points of agreement on how the next president should lead, with Americans placing great importance on the 2008 election. 77% believe it matters a great deal for the future of the country, up from 65% a year ago.

David Gergen, Director of the Center for the Public Leadership said, “We hear a lot about deep political divides in this country, but this poll shows that Americans have clear ideas about the kind of leadership they expect from their presidents.” It should be noted that it was Mr. Gergen who suggested to a Martha’s Vineyard audience last summer, that Hillary Clinton, (D-NY), would be the best choice as a running mate for now Democrat presidential nominee, Barack Obama, (D-IL).

The poll asked a demographically representative sample of 997 U.S. citizens (margin of error 3.1%) to chose between alternative conceptions of good presidential leadership. Various aspects of presidential leadership, such as building alliances and preserving checks and balances, are favored by a majority of Americans. For example:

72% say presidents should use the military only to defend America and react to enemy attacks
71% say presidents should share power equally with Congress and the Supreme Court
64% say presidents should make decisions based on fairness
56% say foreign policy should focus on building alliances
55% say they prefer presidents who are never willing to be unethical or bend the rules.

Also revealed were some key differences in the facets of presidential leadership favored by those who favor John McCain, (R-AZ) and those supporting Mr. Obama. These core debates about presidential leadership give us some clues about how the candidates’ leadership profiles attract supporters,” notes the study’s lead author, Seth Rosenthal.

“McCain supporters have a general preference for presidents who act as independent moral agents and focus on the country’s safety and strength,” noted Rosenthal. “In contrast, Obama supporters seem to prefer practical presidents whose decisions are more directly responsive to Americans’ opinions and needs.” For instance, when asked to choose between alternate conceptions of presidential leadership:

62% of McCain supporters say presidents should be willing to offend people and make enemies when necessary, while 61% of Obama supporters prefer that presidents always be respectful and diplomatic.
60% of McCain supporters say presidents should lead based on moral beliefs about what is right and wrong, while 52% of Obama supporters counter that presidential leadership based on practical beliefs about what works and doesn’t work is more important.
58% of McCain supporters say presidents should protect the public’s safety, even if it infringes on their freedom, while 49% of Obama supporters believe that presidents should protect the public’s freedom, even if it infringes on their safety.
40% of McCain supporters want presidents to reduce the government’s power to allow Americans to succeed and fail on their own, a sentiment with which only 15% of Obama supporters agree.


70% of Obama supporters want presidents to keep religious faith a personal or private matter, while 54% of McCain supporters prefer that presidents express their religious faith in public.
64% of Obama supporters say presidents should do what American people think is right, while 50% of McCain supporters want presidents to do what they themselves think is right.
63% of Obama supporters want presidents to ensure that America is respected for its fairness, while 53% of McCain supporters say it’s more important for presidents to ensure that America is respected for its strength.
63% of Obama supporters say that presidents should focus on uniting people, while McCain supporters are about equally split on whether a president should focus on uniting people or on accomplishing goals, even if it divides people.

The crisis in confidence in America’s leaders is clearly reflected in the National Leadership Index 2008, which presents the public’s confidence in the leaders of multiple sectors of society. From 2007 to 2008, many sectors experienced their steepest annual declines in confidence since the inception of the National Leadership Index in 2005. Among the survey’s key findings:

Confidence in the leaders of seven sector – business, the Executive Branch, Congress, religious, educational, the Supreme Court, and state government – fell more sharply in the past year than ever before.
Confidence in business in business leaders dropped further than did confidence in leaders of any other sector.
Confidence in the Executive Branch and educational leaders has declined fo three years in a row.
The only sectors in which Americans have more than a moderate amount of confidence are military and medical leadership. Confidence held steady from 2007 for military, medical, nonprofit & charitable, and local government leaders.
For the third year in a row, confidence in leaders has not in creased in any sector.

A plurality of 39% believe that thing will be better after the 2008 election, with only 7% believing things will worsen.

Todd Pittinsky, Research Director at the Center for Public Leadership said, “The American people are experiencing tremendous anxiety at the uncertain state of the nation, and they’re holding those at the top responsible. The next president,” he continued, “will face significant challenges. And one of the most important will be to take the lead in restoring Americans’ confidence.”

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