Is Giuseppe Conte Becoming The Italian Obama?

In many ways Conte's approach mirrors that of Barack Obama, but it is the differences that may just mean his survival once the gates of lockdown Italy are lifted.

Picture edited from Presidenza del Consiglio dei Ministri / CC BY-SA

There are similarities between Conte and Obama that bear examination

The man that no one knew two years ago now has the highest approval rating of any Italian politician in decades, in large part due to the calm and eloquence with which he has managed the coronavirus crisis. In many ways his approach mirrors that of Barack Obama, but it is the differences that may just mean his survival once the gates of lockdown Italy are lifted.

I remember when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. I was a graduate student at McGill University in Montreal and everyone I knew was gathered in our student lounge, glued to the television and waiting for the results to come in. When his victory was declared the room erupted and we all took turns hugging each other, tears streaming down our faces. I found a quiet corner and called my father in New York, where he was also crying. “We did it,” I told him. “We sure did,” he said.

By complete happenstance, I also remember the day that Giuseppe Conte was appointed as the Italian Prime Minister. I was at a bar in our small town outside of Viterbo for what was probably my fourth coffee of that day, and the television was tuned into the Senate. Those men in the bar who paid attention at all said the same thing. “Who the hell is this guy?” No one expected him to last longer than a year, if that (they were close).

Undoubtedly, the two political leaders could not have had more divergent beginnings: one was a meteoric rise to the top of a storied office, the other seemed as accidental as Chance the Gardener winding up in the corridors of power. And of course, both the political and temporal context in which each has held positions is vastly different, so making close comparisons is a dicey gambit. Nonetheless, there are similarities between Conte and Obama that bear examination, for each has shown a remarkable capacity to transform complex democratic principles into accessible and often effective communication. Particularly in times of crisis (however acute or prolonged), these skills have proven not only to be invaluable strategically, but have by and large been the foundation for both leaders’ surge in popularity.

That said, the differences between Obama and Conte are nuanced, and these nuances make them even more interesting to unpack. And with all of the requisite qualifications that such a thought exercise entails, one might go so far as to suggest that it is precisely the differences between Obama and Conte, rather than the similarities, that may just ensure the latter’s staying power in an Italy that is going to need an extraordinary leader.

Professors turned presidents

The similarities between the two men are most obviously felt in their law backgrounds, as each worked as a professor in the field before (and indeed during) their respective rises in the political sphere. Obama was a lecturer in constitutional law and race theory at the University of Chicago for 12 years, Conte became a professor of private law at the University of Florence in 2002 and simultaneously held positions at Sassari, Roma Tre, and Luiss. Beyond the subject matter, however, each revealed teaching styles that resonated with their students and made them particularly liked among the student body. One of Obama’s noted that “there was no pontificating from on high about what we should think. It was us organically coming up with kernels of wisdom.” Conte’s reviews similarly remarked on his engaging approach: “during lessons, he gave many examples and retraced his personal experiences. They were very participatory lessons that lead to challenging discussions.”

Ambition also runs through each of their careers, though their trajectories could not have been more different. Obama’s political aspirations were evident from the earliest stage of his academic career, and his time at the University of Chicago was split between his classes and his seat on the Illinois state senate, the jumping off point that would eventually catapult him onto the national stage. Conte was considered brilliant but disorganized, due to the commitments he held in different cities and the time he spent travelling between them. As one of his students commented, “he is disorganized because he is perpetually absent. I have never had the need to go to him for advice, but any friends that have are mostly seen by his assistant.” That shared ambition would come back to haunt them both in the march towards leadership, as opponents looked for a weak flank. Conte was accused of inflating his CV to include positions at US universities like NYU where no records of such appointments existed, while Obama’s work as a community organizer carried charges ranging from embellishment to outright radicalism, and nearly undermined his campaign in its final push to the presidency in 2008.

Different though their paths were (and let’s be clear, they were very different), it is instead the expectations that were levelled on each of their heads that would turn out to have the most significant consequences. Those men in the bar with me were not the only ones who scratched their heads at the announcement of the name Giuseppe Conte, a literal unknown outside of a very small circle (and Francesco Bellomo). But the very lack of expectations upon him may have been his saving grace: in essence, he needed only to avoid making a mockery of the proceedings, and hopefully keep a government made of wildly opposing parties from ripping each other to shreds. That he did so even for a short time, and that he survived the eventual bloodletting that would see him at the head of two governments in as many years, proved him to be much more adept at navigating the choppy waters of Italian politics than anyone could have imagined. He proved early on that, contrary to what some may have thought, he was no puppet.

Barack Obama, by contrast, was a Prodigal Son returning to rescue his lost flock when he ascended into the American political stratosphere in 2008. His victory was a watershed moment in US and perhaps world history. As Ta-Nehisi Coates would write, “much as the unbroken ranks of 43 white male presidents communicated that the highest office of government in the country — indeed, the most powerful political offices in the world — was off-limits to black individuals, the election of Barack Obama communicated that the prohibition had been lifted.” His election perpetuated the myth that America has entered a post-racial era, that the chasms which had plagued the country for hundreds of years were finally, and definitely, healed.  Indeed, in his first year in office, Barack Obama was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples” before he had actually done anything. There was nowhere higher for his ambition to strive and consequently, nowhere to go but down. And though Obama the Man would continue to gain near iconic status even before leaving office in 2016, Obama the President left the chasms that he was meant to heal even deeper. These unmet expectations, coupled with a myriad foreign and domestic policy decisions that disappointed many who once championed him, make his legacy a complicated one, to say the least. But when a man becomes a symbol before he has even had the chance to put a bill into law, could it have been any other way?

A Tale of Two Leaders

Even the most cursory discourse analyses reveal striking similarities and offer a window into the effect that each leader has had. Both during the Obama years and now in the second Conte government (and in particular the coronavirus crisis), two themes have resounded: a feeling of national pride, and an appreciation for the calm that each leader exudes. The pride that Obama inspired was captured in film, photo, and words by nearly every news outlet and teenager with a mobile phone in 2008, and the repudiation of a bellicose American image swelled into hopes of a sea change, around the world. African Americans in particular expressed feelings of empowerment, inclusion, and visibility by the government for the first time but ultimately, a vast cross section of the country felt their faith in the United States restored when Barack Obama became their president.

Though extending over a shorter period of time, and albeit with a decidedly different tone and context (this is, after all, a thought exercise), Giuseppe Conte’s leadership throughout the coronavirus crisis has stirred similar feelings of pride in Italians, with a 171% increase in his social media followers and thousands of messages from people “proud to be Italian” and “proud of our leader,” firmly establishing him as the central figure in the government’s response to the crisis. Whether by spearheading the coronavirus containment model, by publicly protesting the sclerotic response of the European Union to Italian appeals for assistance, or by forcing the hand of that very Union to develop a comprehensive recovery program, Conte has given the Italian public several different reasons to feel genuinely confident in their image abroad. As my colleague Asia Guerreschi rightly points out, “Conte is the prime example of how Italians had lost the idea of what being a good leader meant… (but he) has proven we can be a country of character and determination.”

It’s not unreasonable to assume that this pride is an outgrowth of the way that each leader comports themselves both domestically and abroad, and by consequence acts as a representation of that collective body politic. It turns out that people tend to respond to a calm leader, particularly in times of crisis, and both Obama and Conte have become known for their ability to radiate calm in the midst of chaos. Principally, what we can reasonably assume to be a sincere belief in the letter of the law and the principles of democratic deliberation is a foundational element in the political discourse of both leaders. That each has retained this spirit in spite of and indeed perhaps because of the extraordinary positions each man has found himself in and the fervent opposition they have faced is perhaps a testimony to their previous careers. Whatever the process, it is fair to say that both display the ensemble of traits that are now popularly known as emotional intelligence.

Two points stand out in particular in this regard, and each man has excelled at both. Both Obama and Conte have by and large succeeded at translating the complexities of democratic and constitutional law into simple and direct language that resonates with the general public. Obama’s ability to remain “unflappable” became one of his signature traits and during a contentious campaign in 2008, his even temperament won him accolades against a more impetuous opponent. His “cool as they come” image would define his presidency and his ability to rope-a-dope against political slings and arrows, seemingly getting even more calm as his opponents were further enraged, gave him a Spock-like quality. He waited for the law to prevail and when it did, he coolly stepped back and let his foes stew over it.

The “Conte style” relies on a mix of calm and reassuring, a method that has proved invaluable in these extraordinary times. Indeed in his speeches to the nation, Conte has had “the wisdom to show the infinite fragility and, at the same time, the extraordinary strength available to our country.” He manages to sound authentic, to speak to people in a way that feels neither patronizing nor inflammatory. Indeed it is rare for a person to cite Norbert Elias in normal conversation, let alone in one of the most consequential speeches that a politician is likely to give in their career.  But when he called for Italy to become “a community of individuals”, he wasn’t asking us all to brush up on our critical theory textbooks; instead, he treated us like adults, and it just felt

Thus far, he has approached the complex business of stopping and slowly restarting a country by appealing to reason instead of inflaming passion and by and large, his method has worked. Likewise, his rapport with the EU in negotiating for the the most sweeping and complicated aid package in its history has been razor sharp in its elegance, yet unrelenting in its message: his rebuke to the Netherlands that their history of acting as a tax shelter to businesses while depriving other European countries of significant domestic revenue was the closing argument of a lawyer who knows the accused has no alibi. And for many Italians, it felt good to be on the winning side of the argument.

It is perhaps not so surprising that their respective demeanours have resonated with the public, and that the emotional intelligence of both Obama and Conte has translated into a surprising number of admirers. Barack Obama had his famous cameo in Fleabag, and there are to date 370,000 followers on the @lebimbedigiuseppeconte Instagram page. Apparently, emotional intelligence is truly the new sexy.

The calm and the storm

But here’s where it gets interesting. As a professor, Barack Obama’s absence from faculty meetings and debates often left his colleagues with the impression that he was aloof and perhaps a bit too self assured for someone with his limited experience; the accusation of being out of touch, aloof, or simply unavailable would follow Obama throughout his administration. Conte, on the other hand, was defined by his humility, and friends defined him as “attentive, generous and very graceful.” This small but critical difference is telling. Humility would serve Conte as much as aloofness would prove to be Obama’s Achilles heel.

Towards the end of the Obama era, the maxim “when they go low, we go high” was launched as a rebuke of the mounting rancor of the Republican opposition, in particular that of Donald Trump. It was a laudable gesture, but it ultimately left too much room for his opponents to gain ground and too little substance for his audience to connect with. Obama’s academic persona re-emerged and one could not help but think that in the midst of campaigning for a woman with whom he had a complicated history, and against a man with whom no love was lost, his heart just wasn’t in it. The refusal to explicitly take on his detractors was depicted as a tacit assent to their insults and the momentum shifted away from the America that Obama tried to create. He never seemed to quite find the line between the high road and the sharp shot, and it became a suit of armor that never really fit quite right. There was a sneaking sense that the Obama coalition was crumbling, that he really did think there was no way a man like Donald Trump could win. So he kept on with his digs and bemused smiles at campaign rallies of the former faithful, perhaps not fully aware that it was this very sardonic wit that had given rise to the popularity of his soon to be successor. For his playful, half joking-fully serious roast of a tuxedoed Donald Trump during the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner may turn out to be a pivotal moment in American, and indeed world history. After all, it was the moment that many point to as the moment that Trump decided to run for president in 2016. Sometimes, when you go too high, you get burned by the sun.

Giuseppe Conte may traffic in calm, but he is not afraid to get angry. Importantly, he seems to get angry when the democratic institutions which he has sworn to uphold are threatened, and that makes his anger all the more potent and effective. Those flashes show the fire of a lawyer with a smoking gun and a hell of a closing argument, and he seems to know just when to take the safety off. When he does, he’s a crack shot. Conte is affable and accommodating, until he isn’t; one feels the aura of the professor that will answer your questions fully and comprehensively but will excoriate you if you haven’t done the readings.

His speech to Parliament upon his resignation in 2019 was a startling reminder of the substance of democratic values and a refreshing confrontation of the inherent responsibility that those values entail. “If there is a lack of courage, don’t worry. I will carry it in front of a country whose eyes are upon us.” In him one sees the kind of indignation that may indeed have a place in politics, for with Agnes Callard we must admit that “if we quash (anger) with too heavy a hand, we lose self-respect and, more generally, our moral footing.” Indeed, Conte’s rare displays of anger have often resulted in greater public support, rather than diminishing numbers. One need only recall the atmosphere in Italy on the evening of April 10, when during his press conference to update the country on the current progress against the coronavirus, Conte was “forced to name names” of those who were propagating falsehoods about European negotiations. Maybe it was because we haven’t had any sports in the past two months, but one could have been mistaken for thinking that Italy had just won the World Cup from the buzz in the air. Conte was furious, he named names, and his precision strikes against those who were undermining a national effort at recovery were blistering. People were enthralled. But importantly, he was not vicious and he was not vulgar. He was insulted on behalf of his country and because of his anger, so was everyone else. Those names that he named were the subject of multitudes of memes and entreaties by the thousands to disappear into the holes from which they came.

The humility, authenticity and even ferocity that Giuseppe Conte has displayed in equal and exacting measures do beg the question: is he more like the man that we all thought Barack Obama would be? Maybe he doesn’t need to become the Italian Obama; maybe he’s already better. An audacious proposal, to be sure, but one worth considering.

The subtle art of the graceful exit

Barack Obama seemed destined for prime time TV at the moment that he first spoke at the DNC in 2004, and his star has continued to rise ever since. His first term in office was an homage to Abraham Lincoln, a “government of unity” that would reshape the country after the worst financial crisis they had seen in decades. In the erstwhile American spirit, Obama was building his legacy even before he began his administration and the very fact that he was elected at all remains a watershed moment in American history. However what has followed has inevitably and tragically colored that legacy, and the historical continuum that gave us Barack Obama and his infinite possibilities has undertaken the cruelest plot twist of them all. Barack Obama will remain one of the most dazzling examples of American potential and for generations to come, we will all remember where we were on that November day in 2008. “We did it.” “We sure did.”

Of course, only time will tell whether Giuseppe Conte has the staying power or sheer luck to remain at the head of the Italian government. Palace intrigue has been delayed out of good sense but the sharks are circling; his is not an easy post to hold in the best of times, and these are not the best of times. Then again, Giuseppe Conte has never acted much like someone who was overly interested in his legacy, and maybe that is his greatest strength. Once before, he was more than willing to resign if there was no faith in him, and by all accounts he might have been perfectly happy to go back to his life after what would have been a brief yet surreal aberration. He has said that he has no intention of tying himself to the prime minister’s chair and something about him makes it entirely believable. He seems less concerned with his own epitaph than with simply getting the job done, and he seems to have quickly learned the most important political maxim: haters gonna hate. So far, in the most improbable manner, it’s working for him. After all is said and done, it could be that he is as ever a professor, giving a master class in the subtle art of not giving a f*ck. And it may just make him the very leader that Italy needs.

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