The Obama Presidency and Complex Systems

This post is in response to emails and comments I received about a statement I made on a recent radio show about President Obama’s leadership. If you’re wondering why every president ends up with white hair when he leaves office, please read on.

 What was taken out of context was my statement that President Obama was at least a decade ahead of time.  This wasn’t intended as a statement of blind liberal praise for the President as much as it was an attempt to explain alignments in complex systems and how they work.

cover 3rd mmnc cycle

 Here are some of the nuances behind the thinking:

 In the framework we use, we distinguish between the value systems profile of the individual and the value systems dynamics of a culture. The person who captures the hearts and minds of the voter still has to apply his leadership skills to the much bigger system he is elected to lead. If polarization and dysfunction in a society cannot be resolved as quickly as the voter wants them to, the blame automatically goes to the most visible individual without regard to the dysfunctional structures that are in place. When it comes to large scale political systems, under this framework, there’s a direct relationship between effective leadership and the phase of a value system life cycle that a culture is going through during the time that person is in charge.

phases life cycles

To make this concept simpler, think of the system as a train on a journey that lasts a few decades, and the Presidents are its conductors taking turns in 4-year shifts. During the Clinton presidency the current system was in the Growth and Maturity phase of its cycle. Clear track ahead and on automatic pilot most of the time with occasional but minor tweaks. All president Clinton had to do was some fine-tuning and the system moved along nicely providing him with a great legacy. This is what we call Aesthetic Change. President Obama, on the other hand, is presiding over the end phase of that same system. But, instead of the journey coming to a natural end, the system is dying a premature death as a result of decades of misguided monetary and tax policies the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the Great Depression. I call this in my book abnormal collapse and entropy. This phase of a cycle needs structural , or systemic change.

Now, here’s the dynamic that very few have observed. To President Obama, the current system couldn’t die fast enough for him to usher in simple aesthetic change of a future system. The republicans, on the other want to revive the current comatose and toxic system at any cost. Neither side realizes that relative to the speed at which complex systems move, the old system will take another decade to die, and for its DNA to go through entropy and become informational units that are parts of the next system. As to the coming system, it is still going through its gestation phase still needing a decade or more to differentiate itself while President Obama tried to give it premature birth. Institutions in our culture weren’t ready for it for another decade.

No one should be under the illusion that change could be reversed or accelerated during a system’s premature death. This is not the train pulling slowly into its final destination where the old journey comes to an orderly end and a new journey towards higher values begins. This is a train violently and prematurely derailing off its course leaving a trail of destruction in its path. The best anyone could have done is soften the current collapse while a new paradigm for a new system continues to be formed. There was no track in place for President Obama to launch the new journey. He had little capacities to deal with the current dying system and as a result his legacy will be forever tarnished.

Still, a leader at the helm of a system experiencing a toxic premature death has very few choices. Other than cleaning the carnage over a long period of time, a leader can leave it all behind and immediately start work on a new track and a new train.  We call this Second Order Structural Change (The kind of change that got JFK killed, in my opinion). Today in western culture, change comes very slowly as the existing system (with its toxicity) has to cater to so many diverse and often arrested voices on both sides even as it dies.

 President Obama’s vision, once applied to the collapsing system, was sucked into its energy and became nothing more than a lightening rod for imbedded interest of the dying system. We are simply not ready for the new system, nor can second order structural change be implemented in a divided culture that is openly democratic. Today there are only two ways for Second Order change to happen as quickly as the voter wishes for it to happen:

  1. Through a command and control leadership structure like the military where the President’s goals were simply a matter of delegating responsibility without any of it being questioned. If such leadership were possible, the US would have entered an infancy stage of some form of social democracy. But, since it wouldn’t have emerged naturally, it wouldn’t have any staying power past his presidency.
  2. After the complete and utter collapse of current institutions. For details on how this would have played out, see point one  and add a  Marshall Plan.

Systems move very slowly and there’s too much complexity for complete and systemic collapse to take place. The best the system would allow the President to do is manage an orderly collapse. Or, if the republican were at the helm, continue the toxicity of the current system that would have made for a far worse collapse than the one we saw in 2008.

President Obama is not the first president to have a system die on his watch. Similar value system life cycles also crippled the Carter Administration. President Obama’s legacy unfortunately will be slightly better than that of Jimmy Carter. Both administrations had the previous system die on their watch, but the “next cycle” was much closer in time to Obama than they were to Carter.

life cycles

I suppose the moral is, don’t build a track for a new train when half of the culture is still grieving the death of the old no matter how that death came about. A good lesson in how value systems rise and fall.


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