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The Obama Presidency and Complex Systems

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If you're wondering why every president ends up with white hair when he leaves office, please read on because this post is for you. I have been criticized lately for my views on President Obama's leadership style. What is being taken out of context were some statements I made about the president being at least a decade ahead of time. This wasn't intended as an assertion of blind liberal praise for the president as much as it was an attempt to explain alignments in complex systems and how they work.

Here are some of the nuances behind the thinking:

In the value systems framework, we distinguish between the value systems profile of the individual and the value systems dynamics of a culture. It is where these two systems meet that we measure effective leadership. The person who wins an election 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 contained 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 systems, under this framework, there's a direct relationship between how effective a leader is and what phase of a value system life cycle a culture is in during the time that person is in charge.

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 different conductors taking turns in 4-year shifts. During the Clinton presidency the current system was in the Growth and Maturity phases of the current cycle. One couldn't ask for better alignment of presidential capacities and the needs of the majority of Americans, which gave us economic expansion and budgetary surpluses. In systems thinking, if the republicans ever had a claim on president Clinton, it would have been that he rode off the coattails of the values the Reagan era ushered in. The train/system had clear track ahead and could have run on automatic pilot most of the time with occasional minor tweaks. Outsourcing, deregulation and financial innovation defined our economy. All President Clinton had to do was fine-tune the engine and the system moved along nicely providing him with a great legacy. This is what we call 1st Order Aesthetic change that works best during the Growth and Maturity phases of an economic value system life cycle. President Obama, on the other hand, is presiding over the end phase of that same system, the Entropy and Collapse phase. To add to the challenges the Obama administration is facing, this journey is not coming to natural end like normal systems transitions do. Instead, it's dying a premature death from a toxic shock that started in 2008 as a result of decades of misguided monetary, fiscal, 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, a phase that requires 2nd Order Structural change. More on that later.

Now, here's a dynamic at the heart of the continuing polarization that very few political experts have observed. To President Obama and the millions of his supporters, the current system couldn't die fast enough for him to usher in the new system. What we call the Green system of values based on egalitarianism and humanitarianism that seeks a more equitable distribution of resources. This was the platform that he was elected to implement. Its ideals, relative to where presidential leadership was in 2008, were such a radical departure from the forces that ruled our economy that the republicans used it as lightening rod to paint the Obama presidency as a socialist takeover. Meanwhile, the only alternative the republicans offered was the return to a system that is comatose and toxic. The business as usual values where unfettered free market forces and financial engineering defined progress. Even if that progress meant record disparity in income and record number of Americans in poverty. Neither side understood that relative to the speed at which complex systems move, the old system will take at least another decade to die, while the new system needs another decade after that to empower a culture-wide paradigm shift. By its very nature, a capitalist society thrives on individualistic values, and spends just enough time in communal values to heal the wounds from the exploitations of the previous individualistic system. This is what the republicans are not allowing the system to do as they reach back to the Reagan era values that have been spent and bankrupted instead reaching forward to a capitalist model with a far higher level of consciousness that is empowering the knowledge economy and the disruptive innovations of the future.

In the aftermath of a deregulated economy, the system became susceptible to abuse. During the Reagan era, business regulations that represented the values of the industrial age became impotent by design. Yet, there was no government in place that's smart enough to direct the course of a post-industrial economy in a responsible way. Today, Wall Street through its lobbyists is looking to undo any trading restrictions that the Volker Rule introduced to financial regulation. All these factors are representations of a dying system/train that is misaligned with the future more that they are a representation of a weak, far smaller presidency/conductor of a train. No one should be under the illusion that change could be reversed or accelerated quickly in the aftermath of a system's premature death. This is not the train pulling slowly into its final destination where a new journey towards higher values begins. This is a train violently and precipitately derailing off its tracks leaving a trail of destruction in its path. In its final state, it became so grotesque that bets on its derailment became acceptable forms of business activity. The best anyone could have done is soften the current collapse while a new paradigm for a new system was being formed.

President Obama's vision of the future once applied to the collapsing system was sucked into its energy and became nothing more than a minor tweak that only slightly slowed the current system down. His actions have pleased no one. In order to succeed in his vision as quickly as his supporters wanted him to, he would have needed to implement what we call Second Order Structural Change. No one in recent presidential history has had the power, authority and influence to make this kind of change possible. On the surface, President Reagan appeared to be that change agent, but in reality the system had collapsed before he was elected and the culture was ready for the next paradigm. These alignments are what made him legendary. The pursuit of Second Order Structural changes aims to quickly disrupt imbedded practices and values. If that change is ill timed and the system is not ready, it could spell trouble for a president. In my opinion, this is what got President Kennedy killed.

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 is dying, its values are slowly transforming into units of cultural DNA that will inform future values. In today's complex political system, there are only two ways for Second Order change to happen as quickly as the voter wishes:

1. Through a command and control leadership structure like the military where the president's goals are 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 these values wouldn't have emerged naturally, they wouldn't become a part of the culture's DNA. As a result, they would disappear with 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 then add a Marshall Plan.

President Obama tried to move the system prematurely, but that's not how complex systems work. They 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. On the other hand, if Governor Romney won in 2012, he would have added to the current toxicity of the system making its pathologies permanent and fueling an even more spectacular collapse than the one in 2008.

Regardless of who is at the helm today, very little could have been done to reverse the end phase of a declining value system or speed up the manifestation of the system that is next. There is no doubt that a more equitable values system is what's ahead, but no president has the power to make it manifest prematurely.

President Obama naively promised too much in his first term at the worst time possible in a system's life cycle. His re-election only reflects that our society is slightly closer in alignment to the values of the coming system than they are to the one in decay. Still, public opinion will always blame the conductor at the time of the crash, not the train that for decades was running on faulty tracks.