Two men met at the end of a ceremonial walk down a long corridor last week. One of these men carried the hopes of millions on his shoulders: His selection to high office reflected a new openness to those long discriminated against and raised global hopes for a power whose image had been damaged—a power despised but still desired, often in the same breath, around the world.
The other man was Barack Obama.
Pope Francis had just marked his first year in office, amid breathless discussion of the “Francis effect.” How real that effect has been is open to debate. On one hand, no church doctrine has been changed, and lapsed believers are not flocking back to the church in Latin America, Europe and North America by the millions.
On the other hand, the pope’s favorability numbers among Americans are at a level not seen since Pope John Paul II’s heyday. American Catholics report praying more and being “more excited about their faith.” In Latin America, Francis is viewed as a mediator and powerbroker.
As Obama walked down that corridor to meet the pope in his office, having read the morning’s headlines suggesting he’d gone to Rome to get a PR boost from a more popular leader, did he remember the one-year anniversary of his own election, which brought with it a Nobel Peace Prize?
Did Pope Francis, as he read his briefing notes before the meeting about a president struggling with low popularity, a sluggish economy and an emboldened opposition, think to himself, “Father, take this cup away from me?”
Outwardly, the two men have little in common. Francis is a generation older than Obama; he grew up in privilege and then lived through enormous social turmoil, having to make a series of fraught choices as a rising cleric during Argentina’s dictatorship and dirty war. By choosing the priesthood, he chose stability and institutionalism even as the young Obama gravitated to work—and faith—that privileged local communities over formal organizations.
Yet their respective rises, and the way the world has greeted them, share key similarities that tell us, perhaps, more about our world and what we demand of our leaders than about the two men themselves.
First, their personal creation myths have both been defined by a mix of what they are with what they are not. Francis, the first non-European pope, is nonetheless white, Italo-Argentine and capable of easy jokes in Italian vernacular. Obama, the first black president, is the son of a white mother and an African father. Neither, then, is exclusively the descendant of souls downgraded by the institutions they now lead—except for all of their female ancestors, but that’s another column. And despite the odds against their reaching their current office, each has eased comfortably into leadership of their respective institutions.
Second, each has been both the beneficiary—and victim—of intense expectations. Remember when Obama was going to be a “transformational president,” and all the things that meant? The Peace Prize, after all, seemed to have been awarded to Obama in the hope that he would abolish war, and maybe reverse climate change to boot.
Francis, meanwhile, is faced with a blizzard of expectations of his own. Many hope that he will initiate a modernization of the church’s positioning on issues ranging from the nature of the priesthood, including celibacy and allowing women to be priests, to the fast-advancing norm of gay marriage, in order to arrest the decline of Catholicism. With all that at stake, he has arguably yet to really accomplish anything.
Another profound similarity between the two men is their seeming determination to disappoint their most eager fans.
Each is a renovator, not a revolutionary, and the established hierarchies that embraced them and enabled their rise to power understood this, perhaps more clearly than their publics did. Each seems to see with enormous clarity the failings of the institution he commands; yet each is thoroughly invested in its structures and powers.
In that, they might be the harbingers of a new breed: This week we saw another such figure added to the European scene when NATO chose as its next secretary-general former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, a man who began his political career opposed to his country’s membership in NATO.
Yet there is no alliance between the two leaders, to put it mildly, nor is there a broader coalition among other center-left leaders with renovative aspirations, from France’s Francois Hollande to the Latin American leaders who eagerly court Francis and excoriate Obama.
Obama himself was asked, after an obviously warm and thoughtful meeting with Pope Francis, whether he envisioned a strategic alliance of some sort. He said no. “His job is a little more elevated,” he added. “We are down on the ground dealing with the often profane. He’s pretty much with higher powers.”
Perhaps the greatest similarity between the two leaders, then, is their desire to lead within the status quo of institutions that have utterly revolutionary ideals at their heart. Though the reality has often fallen painfully short of the rhetoric, both the United States and the Catholic Church earned global respect and goodwill for their revolutionary ideals: “All men are created equal,” and “Love one another, as I have loved you.”
Expectations of revolution, then, cannot help but be disappointed, especially when the visions of revolution are self-centered, whether it is the inflated hopes of European Obamaphiles or those of liberal admirers of Francis.
Pressures from 24/7 media for instant results drive expectations that would try the patience of a saint, which Francis is not, yet. But smart leaders the world over see that their publics, despite their longing for revolutionary change, are unwilling to abandon familiar institutions that define nation and community.
What lessons did this year’s favorite transformational leader take from the golden boy of a few years past? Only his confessor knows for sure. But both would do well to remember transformational leaders of an earlier generation who understood that history had bound them in partnership: President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II. It would be a good precedent for their admirers to keep in mind, too.
Heather Hurlburt is a senior fellow at Human Rights First in Washington. With experience in the White House, Congress, the State Department and overseas, she focuses on the space between diplomacy and domestic politics. Her WPR column, Full-Spectrum Diplomacy, will appear every Monday while Richard Gowan is on leave of absence.