Insight article

A tale of two leaders

Washington and San Francisco.  Barack Obama and Steve Jobs.

In America on 27th January 2010, two men gave two very different speeches.  Both President Obama and Steve Jobs took to the stage last night to command the world’s attention.  President Obama’s first State of Union came in the wake of a media storm following last week’s Massachusett’s election, while Steve Jobs introduced the iPad, having managed to generate a whirl of popular speculation around Apple’s latest launch without saying a word.

In his State of the Union, President Obama set out his agenda for the next year, re-prioritising job creation over his healthcare reform plans and with a mandate to reassure the American population of his intentions.  The White House has recently been criticised for being too insular and for losing touch with the people – some of whom had the opportunity to demonstrate their dissatisfaction in last week’s Massachusetts election and the surrounding Republican campaign.

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the country, Steve Jobs and Apple were maintaining a highly staged, portentous silence (if such a thing is possible) while the media and blogosphere did all the PR for them.  Last night, Jobs unveiled the latest product in Apple’s arsenal.  Hailed as the ‘Jesus’ tablet because the publishing industry’s hopes for salvation are said to rest on its success – putting their trust in Apple’s ability to fundamentally alter the way we interact with different media, in the same way they did with the iPod and iPhone.  Jobs is notorious for doing no market research and for his personal involvement in product development – he is very much the leader of the business and indeed the face of Apple: share values plummet in his absence and his compelling presentation style is legendary.

So.  On the one hand you have criticism for someone getting on with the job without due consultation with his audience, but on the other hand you have someone heralded as a marketing genius for doing exactly the same thing.

Communication, media and social media have played critical roles in the different paths of these two men and you can really see both the good and bad sides of holding the weight of so much responsibility under such scrutiny.  The future of America and western democracy lie in the persuasive powers of Barack Obama, while the next step for human communication await the reception of the iPad.  Barack Obama was pre-emptively awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 seemingly for what he represented, as much as for any action he had taken, and his inauguration was celebrated as a step-change in American culture.  But, just one year in and the critics are questioning his ability to deliver.  Steve Jobs seems integral to Apple’s future to provide the vision of possibility and innovation, but what does this reliance mean for the company’s future?  Where does Apple go in the, ultimately inevitable, Jobs’-less future (an unfortunate pun?) and what happens to the hope that Obama brought to a nation (and the Nobel committee) if he cannot deliver what he promised for an acceptable price?

Finally, what does it say for democracy when more people tune into Jobs’ speech about another product that aims to achieve the iPod’s ubiquity, than to hear the leader of the free world deliver his plans for conquering the worst economic crisis in living memory.  It is Steve’s iPad on the front page of today’s (British) Financial Times and number one on the Google search list (US) – with the State of the Union coming in second.  It will be interesting to see who gets the most youtube hits… and to see who’s still standing when the next election comes around.  Either way, the weight of responsibility and the scrutiny of the world rests on these two, very 21st-century, leaders.

Nailia Tasseel