President Obama is not an open book but a semester course. It's Day 15 in Obama's First 100 and I have the lucky job of overseeing a group of graduate students at Syracuse University who are enrolled in my Persuader-in-Chief course. The full title is "The President, Public Opinion and Diplomacy."
When we first met I declared everyone Fellows in our Obama Think Tank. What was expected of them was to produce an abstract and make an oral presentation each week on some aspect of the presidency, from policy to rhetoric, issue to misstep. Any topic is accepted. In addition, they must pick a topic to develop into a publishable paper.
The class consists of students whose majors run the gamut from media studies, rhetorical studies, law, political science, international relations, to public relations. It's not very often that a professor gets to engage ideas across so many disciplines, but it's a welcome arrangement.
My law student announced that applications are up at the law school. They are calling it the "Biden Effect." Vice-President Joseph Biden earned his Juris Doctor from Syracuse University College of Law in 1968.
We've talked a lot about the "Obama Effect," a close cousin to the "Oprah Effect." Oprah's early endorsement of fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama was purported to be responsible for producing an additional million voters for Obama, according to economics professors Craig Garthwaite and Timothy J. Moore from the University of Maryland. They published their conclusions in a September 2008 report, "The Role of Celebrity Endorsements in Politics: Oprah, Obama, and the 2008 Democratic Primary."
President Obama, like Oprah, has enormous powers of persuasion. He, like Ms. Winfrey, enjoys a position of high credibility. Credibility is in the eyes of the beholder. It refers to the judgments made by a perceiver, i.e., a message recipient, concerning the believability of a communicator. It's not about absolute truth but believability. A person with high credibility makes you want to trust him or her. President Obama cannot determine his own credibility, only the American public. The same holds true for Oprah Winfrey. The day she touts a book or idea and the public shrugs, "Who cares?" will be the day she has lost her credibility.
High credibility is a multidimensional and dynamic construct. One can gain credibility or lose it. It fluctuates like weight. It's rarely a consistent feature of any one person, though Oprah seems to be holding high credibility steadily over two decades as an enormously popular national talk show host and CEO of Harpo Productions. Credibility is not something easily defined, but is akin to Justice Potter Stewart's definition of hard-core pornography. "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced . . . [b]ut I know it when I see it."
We know credibility, the "It" factor, when we see it. It does have some measurable primary dimensions. Expertise (competence, qualification) is a top dimension, followed by Trustworthiness (also called character, personal integrity), and Goodwill (caring, shows interest in others beyond self-interest). Obama and Oprah Winfrey have all three.
Obama has an additional secondary dimension that is almost primary with him. It's Composure. I've not witnessed such an unflappable president since Ronald Reagan. This cool under pressure persona is reassuring to a nation that is reeling from bad economic news everyday.
Before someone goes on the attack to label this a lightweight "He's the man!" type course, this is not a class designed to function as a cheerleader for the 44th president. I welcome dissenting and critical perspectives, though I'm aware that it's likely this self-selective group of students is either pro-Obama to be begin with, or fascinated enough with the persuasion and public opinion aspects of the new president to warrant a semester's worth of inquiry.
We have Republicans and Democrats, vegetarians and omnivores, paper and plastic carriers. It doesn't matter to me. It matters that we are living in extraordinary times and that this new president is worthy of academic inquiry.