Trump and Obama equally admired? Eight things popularity polls tell us
Donald Trump tied with Barack Obama as the most admired man in 2019 in a recent Gallup poll. Conducted since 1948, the survey of America’s most admired man and woman provides insight into the leadership attributes people deem important. Jimmy Carter, Elon Musk and Bill Gates came a distant third behind the presidents. First ladies Michelle Obama and Melania Trump were first and second, respectively, on the list of most admired women; Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton, Greta Thunberg and Queen Elizabeth II followed, in that order, at a considerable distance.
So, what does the tie between seemingly polar opposites tell us about leadership? Is this another indicator of a deeply divided country, or are there common kernels among this apparently vastly different group of leaders?
The biggest declines in popular support were for Hillary Clinton, falling from 21 percent in 2012 to 3 percent in 2019, and Barack Obama, whose popularity fell from 30 percent in 2012 to 18 percent. Trump’s popularity bounced upward 5 points from 2018. Despite his recent declining numbers, Barack Obama has finished in top place every year since 2008. George W. Bush finished first in seven of his eight years as president, whereas Bill Clinton topped the poll every year from 1993-2000.
Americans clearly have a predilection for presidents — the only others to have topped the Gallup poll since 1952 are Henry Kissinger (1973-75) and Pope John Paul II (1980).
Incredibly, Hillary Clinton was the most admired woman 22 times since 1993. The women’s category also has been slightly inclusive of international leaders; Mother Teresa (1995-96, 1986, 1980), Margaret Thatcher (1988-90, 1982-84), and Golda Meir (1973-74, 1971) have finished first.
At a global level, a survey conducted by YouGov found that Bill Gates was the most admired man and Michelle Obama, the most admired woman. This survey polled 42,000 people from 41 countries. The top five men included Barack Obama (a close second), Jackie Chan, Xi Jinping, and Jack Ma. Trump placed 14th on the list. Among women, Oprah Winfrey, Angelina Jolie, Queen Elizabeth, and Emma Watson rounded out the top five. Hillary Clinton finished eighth and Melania Trump entered the list for the first time at 19th place.
When this survey is analyzed by country, Barack Obama (19.85 percent) was tops in the U.S., followed by Donald Trump (11.50 percent), Clint Eastwood (7.47 percent), Bill Gates (6.88 percent), and Dwayne Johnson (6.05 percent). Among women, Michelle Obama reigned supreme with 15.37 percent, followed by Ruth Bader Ginsburg (10.43 percent), Melania Trump (8.30 percent), Ellen Degeneres (6.61 percent), and Queen Elizabeth (6.48 percent).
Clearly, when it comes to men, the poll seems to reflect a preference for leaders in politics and business, whereas women are admired more in the entertainment and activist domains.
Setting aside the evident fad for admiring celebrities that ebbs and flows through the longer horizons of these surveys, there are clear leadership lessons that emerge from examining these individuals.
First, a leader needs a clear vision — in the case of Trump, it is an elegant and easy-to-comprehend vision of “America First.” For his supporters, this translates into a vision of American greatness, dominance and hegemony; his detractors perceive it as xenophobia and racist nationalism. Regardless of which side you are on, there is no lack of clarity.
Second, a leader needs to communicate effectively. Obama was celebrated for his oratory, and other historic leaders such as Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King Jr. could move audiences through the power of their words. For example, Churchill’s vow, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender,” is one of the most powerful speeches ever delivered. Although Trump is not a master orator, he is the greatest exponent in history of media manipulation and politics as entertainment.
Third, a leader needs unrelenting ambition and desire to succeed against all odds. Trump and Obama both exhibit this quality. When both their presidential campaigns were written off as lost causes, they refused to yield and eventually prevailed. Trump has defied all expectations that he would resign and endures despite impeachment.
Fourth is the ability to build coalitions with opposing sides — for example, Trump’s willingness to deal with Kim Jong Un despite starting his presidency directing unprecedented insults at the North Korean leader. Churchill allied with the Soviet Union despite his hatred of communism.
Fifth, a leader must be flexible, rather than driven by ideology. Obama demonstrated this with his approach to international relations, and Trump has done so with his episodic support for gun control measures.
Sixth, a leader must be careful to lead close to his pack. Obama was not initially supportive of gay marriage because he did not believe the country was ready for it. Similarly, Trump’s non-dogmatic approach is one of the primary reasons Republicans may be skeptical of him. Trump may have accepted gun control legislation but recognized that his followers were not ready and retreated after claiming to bring the NRA along.
Seventh, a leader needs courage of conviction to make unpopular decisions. A good example is the Iran nuclear deal: Obama showed courage in signing it, and Trump did so in rejecting it and ordering the strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, despite many Americans’ unwillingness to get bogged down in another potentially endless war.
Finally, authenticity comes into play. Trump and Churchill illustrate this best in their “warts-and-all” style: What you see is what you get.
It seems that, in some respects, Trump and Obama are not that different after all. They possess many similar leadership traits. The difference, of course, is perspective. As Tim Burton has said, “One person’s craziness is another person’s reality.”
Sandeep Gopalan (@DrSGopalan) is vice chancellor and executive vice president of academic affairs at Piedmont International University in North Carolina. He previously was a professor of law and pro vice chancellor for academic innovation at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. He has co-chaired American Bar Association committees on aerospace/defense and international transactions, was a member of the ABA’s immigration commission, and was dean of law schools in Ireland and Australia. He has taught law in four countries.