Barack Obama's Theory of Power: It's Bipartisan, Above-the-Fray, Detached-And It Hasn't Worked Can Obama Alter It and Save His Presidency?

By Kuttner, Robert | The American Prospect, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Barack Obama's Theory of Power: It's Bipartisan, Above-the-Fray, Detached-And It Hasn't Worked Can Obama Alter It and Save His Presidency?


Kuttner, Robert, The American Prospect


Power is not only what you have, but what your enemy thinks you have. --SAUL ALINSKY

Barack Obama is one of the shrewdest and most compelling political figures in modern times. He had to be, to become our first African American president, ascending from obscurity to the White House in just four years. Though his campaign had its ideological ambiguities, Obama basically ran and won as a progressive. But despite a financial collapse created on the Republicans' watch and a current Republican agenda far outside mainstream public opinion, the political center has continued to shift to the right during Obama's presidency. How do we reconcile this gaping contradiction?

To his defenders, Obama has done remarkably well given the circumstances. Notwithstanding Republican obstructionism and his lack of a reliable working majority in Congress, he was able to win landmark legislation. If Obama could have gotten more on the stimulus bill or the health bill, say his admirers, he would have. As for the economy and the budget, Obama is unjustly reaping blame for deep trends set in motion under George W. Bush.

Obama's critics contend that his prolonged fantasy of bipartisanship, his failure to lay the blame for the depressed economy squarely on the Republicans, and his reluctance to use his bully pulpit to tell a coherent story, particularly about jobs, needlessly weakened the Democrats and led to avoidable losses in the 2010 midterm. More fundamentally, under Obama government has lost credibility as a necessary force for economic recovery and fairness, undermining the Democrats' core appeal to voters. At the very least, Obama failed to drive the agenda or exploit the full possibilities of presidential leadership in a crisis.

In the formulation of the political historian James MacGregor Burns, Obama ran and inspired voters as a"transformational" figure but governed as a "transactional" one. Notwithstanding a vow to profoundly change Washington, Obama took the Washington power constellation as a given. Despite an economic emergency, he moved neither Congress nor public opinion very much and only seldom used his oratorical gifts. "He is so damned smart and confident that he thinks he just has to explain things to the American people once," says former House Appropriations Chair David Obey. "He doesn't appreciate that you have to reinforce a message 50 times."

Obama's reticence, his reluctance to lay blame, make sharp partisan distinctions, or practice a politics of class, reflects the interplay of his personality and his tacit theory of power--one that emphasizes building bridges to opponents, defying ideological categories, shying away from the kind of mass mobilization that swept him into office, and practicing a kind of Zen detachment. At moments in American history, that conception of the presidency has suited the times. This doesn't seem to be one of those moments.

Yet in the third year of his presidency, there are signs of a learning curve. It may be that Obama is playing his own elegant brand of rope-a-dope, biding his time, letting the Republicans lead with their chins, waiting for just the right moment to dramatize their extremism and exploit their schisms--then demonstrating a toughness that has largely eluded him until now and reshaping the political center as a more progressive one.

THE HOPE OF A NEW, MORE combative Obama was kindled by portions of his April 13 speech at George Washington University, which showed an Obama that we've seldom seen during his presidency. "The man America elected president has reemerged," exulted The New York Times' lead editorial. Obama departed from his usual reluctance to be partisan, explicitly criticizing the self-annihilating Republican designs so usefully spelled out in Rep. Paul Ryan's proposed 10-year budget. The president resorted to a formulation he seldom uses--the injustices of class: "The top 1 percent saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each. …

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