Aug 5th 2009

The Character of Barack Obama

There are times when President Obama seems to imagine himself as the moderator of a national discussion encompassing all the major issues. A similar fantasy must have been harbored by many gifted speakers, at one time or another. The odd thing about finding it in a president is that the fantasy is so completely non-political.

One of the strangest facts we know about Obama is that his colleagues and students at the University of Chicago Law School came away from discussions very impressed with his abilities, but not knowing what he thought about many issues. This was not torts or contracts. Obama's subject was Constitutional Law.

He has always had a reputation for being fair-minded -- a strength only attainable by someone who is (to begin with) minded. But the cautiousness of his first six months as president shows a pattern of accommodation that often lands him on the far side of actual prudence.

His instinct is to have all the establishments on his side: Wall Street, the military, the mainstream media; the most profitable corporations in all but the most signally failing industries; and that movable establishment (which disappears and reconstitutes itself), the quick-take pulse of popular opinion on any given issue. A president, ideally, wants all the establishments to support him, of course. You can't do without two or more at a time on your side; it is hopeless to set yourself at permanent enmity with even one. Yet to oppose the bankers on the question of bailouts, to oppose the military on drone assassinations, to exhibit non-pliability against the insurance companies in pressing for a public option in health care, to defy a bare majority of popular opinion on the importance of keeping Guantanamo open -- to have fought at least some of these battles need not have been hazardous for a president who came into office on a wave of revulsion against his opposite.

In dealing with some of these issues, Obama has stepped forward and then back. On some, he has not yet taken a first step away from his predecessor.

Pragmatic justifications have been offered to explain his aversion to any contest that implies a clash of opposing interests. Thus Rahm Emanuel said of the disastrously time-wasting courtship of Republican support for the stimulus package: "The public wants bipartisanship. We just have to try. We don't have to succeed." But try every time and you will waste your life. And when did the public say it wanted bipartisanship? The last fair measure was the election of 2008; and the public then gave a convincing majority to one party.

Alongside Obama's reticence sits a curiously incompatible trait, a certain grandiosity. This showed recently in his second statement about the Cambridge police. Offered a chance to concede that matters of local law were ultimately outside his province, he replied that in his view such things were "part of my portfolio." Psychologically, this may be so. But Obama is mistaken if he thinks many Americans want to see that portfolio carried into many other towns and cities. People like to think a president is too important for that. He stands at the very head of the dignified part of government (as Walter Bagehot called it). He can't at the same time enter into the efficient part of government at the level of the city police.

Doubtless a certain grandiosity is an aspect of the man. But if it is bad, all things being equal, to appear grandiose and worse to appear timid, it is the worst of all to be grandiose and then timid.

Occasionally Obama seems even better in ad lib discussions than one had expected -- with voters and reporters, and with other politicians. But he has turned out to be far less canny than he needs to be in making the sort of major speech that explains an issue from the ground up. The absence of such a speech on the economy in his first few weeks in office, and the public unease generated by that default, prompted the first of his "recovery" trips on the road, to the West Coast for several town-hall meetings and an appearance on The Tonight Show. Now, far into the discussion of health care, he has re-engaged the strategy with appearances at town hall meetings in the Midwest. These represent the second stage of closing an understanding with the public that lacked a first stage.

On July 30 the New York Times ran a story about a woman who owns a small business and has followed the president from place to place to ask him a question. Is there, she wanted to know, a single government program that has ever done anything right? (She got that knock-down challenge from talk radio.) Obama replied with two examples, Medicare and Veterans Hospitals. The business owner who had chased him down with supreme confidence in her mockery was surprised to hear those two sober examples. Nobody had told her. Then there is the citizen at another town-hall meeting who said: "Keep your government hands off my Medicare."

Several months into the president's call for health care reform, their level of ignorance is his responsibility.

His characteristic way of handling confusion in the audience is to come back and give good answers to questions. That is very well, but no substitute for an early explanation. Mopping up in question-period is an academic skill: the points you didn't capture in lecture, you recover when the hands go up. But this presumes that everyone signed up for the lectures and everyone already knows something. Here, Obama's two opposing traits, the caution and the presumption, have joined with results that are deeply unhappy. He arrogates. He does not indicate. And when the argument is well underway, he starts his major explanation as an afterthought.

Obama cherishes the ideal of a frictionless transformation of society. It is a wish for aesthetic harmony, which he mistakes for a political goal. Its attainment would be a beautiful thing. But no matter how much he appeals for comity Obama is certain to give offense to some. Better to choose your times and targets than allow others to force that choice.

His aversion to strife was plain from his conduct in the primaries and the general-election campaign. But the degree of avoidance we have seen could never have been predicted. Obama's training, one recalls, was in the community-reform methods of Saul Alinsky; and yet he seems to have adapted the relevant ideas in foreshortened form. The Alinsky process of reform, as Jeffrey Stout has pointed out, goes from powerlessness to power in several stages. There is, first, the public recognition of powerlessness; then the airing of injustices, by legitimate polarization and active protest; then proposals of concrete reform; and only at last, power-sharing and reconciliation.

The strange thing about Obama is that he seems to suppose a community can pass directly from the sense of real injustice to a full reconciliation between the powerful and the powerless, without any of the unpleasant intervening collisions. This is a choice of emphasis that suits his temperament.

Reconciliation, however, can't be genuine or lasting without some polarization, a careful (not generalized) exposure of injustices, and a fight that feels like a fight. In the absence of these, reconciliation dwindles into a rhetorical device; it leads to short-term salvation formulae and a renewal of discontents. The same objection applies to Obama's wholly rhetorical notion that he can overcome the illegal actions of the Bush-Cheney administration by pardoning lower-echelon executors and "facing the future."

"His pragmatism is what is overwhelming him," said Obama's Chicago doctor about his approach to health care. A surprising and accurate insight. Pragmatism is supposed to trim; but taken to the circuitous lengths Obama allows, pragmatism is another word for the compulsive propitiation of unnecessary partners. It expands the work and blunts the achievement of reform. This president wants to move big, but he also wants to move slow; he wants to start a great change, but not to be the prime mover. So we get the large announcements: Guantanamo will close at once, Israel will freeze settlements, health care will be made reasonable. The president tries to line up all of his forces, all together -- and do it with so finely tuned an understanding he can't possibly be wrongly portrayed. But while he is working in the background in foreign policy, or leaving things to Congress in domestic affairs, those who are angry, Cheney, Limbaugh, Netanyahu, the big insurers, say what they please. They don't much care whether it is true. The errors "take," as errors will.

Like none of his predecessors, Obama seeks the part but disclaims the signature of a lawgiver. It may be that he mistakes politics for religion -- not less than everyone (he thinks) must share the credit for the great deed. Yet sometimes, also, he mistakes politics for physics. His larger policies have had as their premise: "Things can't go on as they have" -- as if it were a question of natural necessity. In Iraq, this was self-evident; visible reality handed him the change he stood for. Elsewhere the premise is not self-evident. And, good as Obama is in person, a resonant speaker, an impressive master of details once the details are in, he has not yet explained a single major policy in advance with the accessible clarity Paul Krugmanbrought to health care simply by listing its four elements: regulation, mandate, subsidy, public option. Such explanations should not have to wait for the intervention of a sympathetic columnist.

Somewhere at the bottom of the missteps of the last few months is a failure to recognize the depth of the popular ignorance a president of the United States confronts on any issue. This complacency and the tactical errors that have flowed from it might be atoned for by other qualities in a parliamentary leader, whose majority and positions come with the job. But the Democrats have yet to prove that their majority means something solid; and their positions depend on no-one so much as the president. The party, for years, wanted a leader to assure their unity; they thought Obama was the one. Yet he has made it felt in many ways since becoming president that he would be disappointed to identify himself as leader of his party.

His political fortune will now depend on his readiness to reverse that posture. To take control of his presidency, he must give up the ambition to serve as the national moderator, the pronouncer on everything, the man with the largest portfolio. If the public option in health care reform is finally defeated, Obama will not soon recover his credit as a national, a party, or a general-issue leader. To avoid that fate, he will have to grant to politics, mere politics, an importance he has not allowed it thus far.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jul 2nd 2022
EXTRACT: "The Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit described this succinctly in his book On Compromise and Rotten Compromises. In “politics as economics,” material interests are “subject to bargaining, everything is negotiable, whereas in the religious picture, centered on the idea of the holy, the holy is non-negotiable.” This, then, is why politics in the US is now in such a perilous state. More and more, the secular left and the religious right are engaged in a culture war, revolving around sexuality, gender, and race, where politics is no longer negotiable. When that happens, institutions start breaking down, and the stage is set for charismatic demagogues and the politics of violence."
Jul 2nd 2022
EXTRACT: "...EU enlargement is essentially a political decision by member states, based on a multitude of considerations that sometimes include dramatic events. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine is such a turning point."
Jun 29th 2022
EXTRACT: "Most market analysts seem to think that central banks will remain hawkish, but I am not so sure. I have argued that they will eventually wimp out and accept higher inflation – followed by stagflation – once a hard landing becomes imminent, because they will be worried about the damage of a recession and a debt trap, owing to an excessive build-up of private and public liabilities after years of low interest rates." ----- "There is ample reason to believe that the next recession will be marked by a severe stagflationary debt crisis. As a share of global GDP, private and public debt levels are much higher today than in the past, having risen from 200% in 1999 to 350% today (with a particularly sharp increase since the start of the pandemic). Under these conditions, rapid normalization of monetary policy and rising interest rates will drive highly leveraged zombie households, companies, financial institutions, and governments into bankruptcy and default."
Jun 28th 2022
EXTRACT: "It is tempting to conclude that today’s central bankers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Maybe if they sit tight, they will ride out the storm. Then-Fed Chair Paul Volcker was Public Enemy Number One in the United States in the early 1980s, when he squeezed post-oil-shock inflation out of the system with double-digit interest rates. But in his later years he was revered, and became a national treasure, called on to advise successive presidents in any financial emergency. ----- But central bankers would be wise not to assume that their reputations will automatically recover, and that the status quo ante will be restored. We live in a more disputatious age than the 1980s. Public institutions are more regularly challenged and held to account by far less reverential legislators." ----- "Moreover, former central bankers have joined the chorus of critics. Former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke, breaking the unwritten rule not to reproach one’s successors, has said that today’s Fed made “a mistake” by responding slowly to inflation. And Bailey’s immediate predecessors, Mervyn King and Mark Carney, have weighed in, too, with challenges to the BOE’s policy. The fabric of the central banking fraternity is fraying."
Jun 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "Public opinion in Belarus remains firmly against involvement into the war with Ukraine. Moreover, according to a Chatham House survey, 40% of Belarusians do not support Russia’s war, compared to 32% who do, while around half of those questioned see predominately negative consequences of the war for Belarus (53%) and for themselves (48%). The Belarusian military and security services are also aware of the determined and skilful resistance that Ukrainian forces have put up against Russia and the risks that they would therefore be running if they entered the war against Ukraine. This, in turn, means that the risk to Lukashenko himself remains that he might lose his grip on power, a grip which depends heavily on the loyalty of his armed forces." ---- "Ultimately, Belarus may not be on the brink of being plunged into war quite yet, but its options to avoid such a disaster are narrowing."
Jun 20th 2022
EXTRACT: "Russification (the policy of enforcing Russian culture on populations) appears to be being reinforced by ethnic cleansing. Last month the Ukrainian parliament’s commissioner for human rights, Liudmyla Denisova, informed the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, that 1.3 million Ukrainians, including 223,000 children, had been forcibly deported to Russia."
Jun 11th 2022
EXTRACT: "If Trump had his way, then Vice-President Pence would have also broken his oath to the constitution and derailed the certification of electoral votes. Our continued existence as a Republic might very well have hung on Pence’s actions that day. The mob’s response was to call for Pence to be hanged, and a noose and scaffold was erected apparently for that very purpose. What was Trump’s reaction when he was told that the mob was calling for Pence’s summary execution? His words were: “Maybe our supporters have the right idea.” Mike Pence “deserves” it."
Jun 10th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Speaking to journalist Sophie Raworth on the BBC’s Sunday Morning show recently, former war crimes prosecutor Sir Howard Morrison, now an advisor to the Ukraine government, highlighted the dangers posed by the negative – often insulting and dehumanising – statements made by some Russian politicians and media personalities about Ukraine and its people." ---- "The conditions and attitudes described by Morrison have existed for centuries: Russians have viewed Ukrainians as inferior since before the Soviet era." ----- "And, as Morrison said, stereotyping and denigrating a people as inferior or lacking agency makes atrocities and looting more likely to happen, as we are seeing in Ukraine."
Jun 9th 2022
EXTRACT: "Unless Russia realises that the west is willing and able to push back, a new, stable security order in Europe will not be possible. Concessions to Russia, by Ukraine or the EU and Nato, are not the way to achieve this. That this has been realised beyond Ukraine’s most ardent supporters in the Baltic states, Poland, the UK and the US is clear from German support for strengthening Nato’s northern flank and a general increase in Nato members’ defence spending."
Jun 8th 2022
EXTRACT: "Highly civilized people can turn into barbarians when demagogues and dictators exploit their fears and trigger their most atavistic instincts. Rape, torture, and massacres often happen when soldiers invade foreign countries. Commanding officers sometimes actively encourage such behavior to terrorize an enemy into submission. And sometimes it occurs when the officer corps loses control and discipline breaks down. Japanese and Germans know this, as do Serbs, Koreans, Americans, Russians, and many others."
Jun 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "Like Metternich, Kissinger commits the fatal error of believing that a few wise policymakers can impose their will on the world. Worse, he believes they can halt domestically generated change and the power of nationalism. Many years ago, this is what Senator William Fulbright termed the “arrogance of power.” This approach failed in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It is also doomed to fail in Russia and Ukraine." ------ "Not surprisingly, Kissinger misunderstands Russia. He appears to believe that, because Russia has been an “essential part of Europe” for over four centuries, it is therefore fated to remain so for the foreseeable future.The claim is completely at odds with history." ---- "Finally, Kissinger misunderstands the implications of his own analysis for Western relations with Russia. “We are facing,” he said, “a situation now where Russia could alienate itself completely from Europe and seek a permanent alliance elsewhere." ---- "But what’s so bad about Russia’s isolating itself from Europe and becoming a vassal state of China? "
Jun 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "According to the latest figures from China’s National Bureau of Statistics, China’s population grew from 1.41212 billion to just 1.41260 billion in 2021 – a record low increase of just 480,000, a mere fraction of the annual growth of eight million or so common a decade ago." ----- "China’s total fertility rate (births per woman) was 2.6 in the late 1980s – well above the 2.1 needed to replace deaths. It has been between 1.6 and 1.7 since 1994, and slipped to 1.3 in 2020 and just 1.15 in 2021."
Jun 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "Casualties are very high. A very conservative estimate of overall Russian losses is that they have lost more troops killed since February 24 than in ten years of fighting in Afghanistan. This implies well over 40,000 men taken out of the fight, including the wounded." ----- "Away from the cauldron of Donbas, Belarus has been rattling its somewhat rusty sabre by deploying troops to its border with Ukraine. This is unlikely to trouble Kyiv. The Belarus president, Alexander Lukashenko, is well aware that he may need them at home to shore up his shaky regime."
May 27th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Monetary policymakers are talking tough nowadays about fighting inflation to head off the risk of it spinning out of control. But that doesn’t mean they won’t eventually wimp out and allow the inflation rate to rise above target. Since hitting the target most likely requires a hard landing, they could end up raising rates and then getting cold feet once that scenario becomes more likely. Moreover, because there is so much private and public debt in the system (348% of GDP globally), interest-rate hikes could trigger a further sharp downturn in bond, stock, and credit markets, giving central banks yet another reason to backpedal." ----- "The historical evidence shows that a soft landing is highly improbable. That leaves either a hard landing and a return to lower inflation, or a stagflationary scenario. Either way, a recession in the next two years is likely."
May 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "No, I am not arguing that Powell needs to replicate Volcker’s tightening campaign. But if the Fed wishes to avoid a replay of the stagflation of the late 1970s and early 1980s, it needs to recognize the extraordinary gulf between Volcker’s 4.4% real interest rate and Powell’s -2.25%. It is delusional to believe that such a wildly accommodative policy trajectory can solve America’s worst inflation problem in a generation."
May 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "It will be critical in this context how China will act and whether it will prioritise its economic interests (continuing trade with Europe and the US) or current ideological preferences (an alliance with Russia that makes the world safe for autocracies)."
May 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "The document is full of embarrassing and damming stories of illegal gatherings and bad behaviour. There was “excessive alcohol consumption”, a regular fixture referred to as “wine time Fridays” and altercations between staff. Aides are shown to have left Downing Street after 4am (and not because they had worked into these early hours). Cleaning staff and junior aides were abused, and a Number 10 adviser is on record before the infamous “bring your own booze” party...."
May 17th 2022
EXTRACT: "But even a resounding Russian defeat is an ominous scenario. Yes, under such circumstances – and only such circumstances – Putin might be toppled in some kind of coup led by elements of Russia’s security apparatus. But the chances that this would produce a liberal democratic Russia that abandons Putin’s grand strategic designs are slim. More likely, Russia would be a rogue nuclear superpower ruled by military coup-makers with revanchist impulses. Germany after World War I comes to mind."
May 4th 2022
EXTRACT: ".....a remarkable transformation is taking place in Ukraine’s army amounting to its de facto military integration into Nato. As western equipment filters through to the frontline, Nato-standard weaponry and ammunition will be brought into Ukrainian service. This is of far higher quality than the mainly former Soviet weapons with which the Ukrainians have fought so capably. The longer this process continues and deepens, the worse the situation will be for the already inefficient Russian army and air force."
May 3rd 2022
EXTRACT: " The conventional wisdom among students of the Russian arts and sciences is that Russian culture is “great.” The problem is that, while there are surely great individuals within Russian culture, the culture as a whole cannot avoid responsibility for Putin and his regime’s crimes." ---- "Russianists will not be able to avoid examining themselves and their Russian cultural icons for harbingers of the present catastrophe. What does it mean that Fyodor Dostoevsky was a Russian chauvinist? That Nikolai Gogol and Anton Chekhov were Ukrainian? That Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was an unvarnished imperialist? That Aleksandr Pushkin was a troubadour of Russian imperial greatness? May these writers still be read without one eye on the ongoing atrocities in Ukraine?"