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Leader, Follower, or Spectator? The Role of President Obama in the Arab Spring Uprisings


  • All data and coding for replication purposes will be made available upon publication at: The authors would like to thank Richard Waterman and the editor and anonymous reviewers at Social Science Quarterly for helpful advice in preparation of the article. We also thank Richard St. Onge for help gathering data.

Direct correspondence to Daniel S. Morey, 1631 Patterson Office Tower, Lexington KY, 40506 〈〉.



President Obama has faced a plethora of challenges both at home and abroad during his first term. While some challenges were inherited, the Arab Spring uprisings provided a new opportunity for him to strengthen America's role as a global leader. Much debate has raged over the way in which Obama dealt with the uprisings. Supporters view Obama's foreign policy as a selling point as he moves toward the 2012 elections, while opponents have condemned him as a follower “leading from behind.” Absent in this debate is an objective attempt to both articulate Obama's foreign policy agenda in both a historical and cross-national context, and an effort to analyze Obama's reaction to the Arab Spring uprisings vis-a-vis other state leaders. This article attempts to rectify these problems to better understand whether Obama was a leader or a follower during the Arab Spring.


We begin with a thorough discussion of Obama's foreign policy approach and then present empirical analysis of original data of all state signals during the Arab Spring uprisings.


Though we find some evidence pointing toward leadership, the bulk of our evidence indicates that Obama was largely either an active spectator or a follower during the uprisings.


We conclude that, at best, Obama showed weak evidence of leadership during the Arab Spring uprisings.