In 2008, America suffered from war and economic crisis. Partisan polarization was extraordinarily high while faith in government was exceptionally low. In such times, the reflexive call is for new—and better—leadership, especially in the White House. Barack Obama answered the call, presenting himself as a transformational leader who would fundamentally change the policy and the politics of America.
Even though both the public and commentators are frequently disillusioned with the performance of individual presidents and recognize that stalemate is common in the political system, Americans eagerly accept what appears to be the promise of presidential leadership to renew their faith in the potential of the presidency. Many Americans enthusiastically embraced Obama’s candidacy and worked tirelessly to put him in the White House. Once there, the new president and his supporters shared an exuberant optimism about the changes he would bring to the country.
There is little question that Obama was sincere in wanting to bring about change. So were his followers. Yet a year into his administration, many were frustrated—and surprised—by the widespread resistance to his major policy proposals. The public was typically unresponsive to the president’s calls for support. Partisan polarization and congressional gridlock did not disappear. As a result, the promised transformation in energy, environmental, immigration, and other policies did not occur. When the president succeeded on health care reform, it was the result of old-fashioned party leadership, ramming the bill through Congress on a party line vote. Even worse, from the Democrats’ perspective, the 2010 midterm elections were a stunning defeat for the president’s party that would undermine the administration’s ability to govern in the succeeding years.
How could this bright, articulate, decent, and knowledgeable new president have such a difficult time attaining his goals? Did the president fumble the ball, making tactical errors in his attempts to govern? Although no president is perfect, the Obama White House has not been severely mismanaged, politically insensitive, or prone to making avoidable mistakes. Ineffective implementation of a strategy is not the explanation for the lack of progress in transforming policy and politics.
Instead, the problem was in the strategies themselves—in the belief that they could succeed. A common premise underlying the widespread emphasis on political leadership as the wellspring of change is that some leaders have the capability to transform policy by reshaping the influences on it. As we will see . . .