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Barack Obama: imperial president, post-American world

There is an increasing mismatch between the demands on the American presidency and the realities that constrain it, says Godfrey Hodgson
Godfrey Hodgson
7 December 2009

Every president of the United States has to play chess on more than one board at a time. The difference between Barack Obama and his predecessors is that, in a multipolar world of 24/7 media, he is obliged to play blitz-chess.

Dwight D Eisenhower had to deal with the crises of Suez and Hungary within a few months of each other in 1956. Lyndon B Johnson had to manage the civil-rights convulsion and the Vietnam war in the same period (for example, the assault of peaceful black protesters by state-troopers with electric cattle-prods and whips in Selma, Alabama on 7 March 1965 was followed the very next day by the historic landing of US marines at Danang, Vietnam).

The pace speeded up in subsequent decades. Now it is relentless. Barack Obama is playing on half-a-dozen boards simultaneously, with the clock ticking. The most benign description of this game is blitz-chess, though it is also known as bullet-chess and - a touch more ominously - as Armageddon.

What is becoming clear is something that goes beyond the capacities or otherwise of an individual leader: namely, the increasing mismatch in the American system between the expectations of the “imperial presidency” and the realities - national and international - that constrain it.

At crisis-speed

The events of the last weeks alone illustrate the sheer range and intensity of the pressures on the man reputed to be the most powerful on the planet. He has been engaging in extended agonising with his advisers about the future of American military strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan; visited east Asia to reaffirm the United States’s commitment to regional security there (and, in the case of Beijing, “to see his bank manager” as one satirist put it); had to cope with rebuffs by Israel (over West Bank settlements) and Iran (over a possible nuclear deal); and is soon to fly to Copenhagen to declare the US’s commitment in the global effort to address the climate-change peril.

In domestic politics, there is no respite. The congressional fight for Obama’s healthcare legislation is arriving as the Senate gets ready to debate a bill on the topic. This, the issue to which candidate Obama gave priority throughout his election campaign, will both affect the lives of tens of millions of American voters and be crucial to the president’s ability to maintain “steerage way” in Washington.

At the same time, many of the president’s supporters are deeply unhappy about the trillions of dollars his administration has given to Wall Street, in contrast to the little he has found for the folks on Main Street who voted for him. They point to unemployment figures that officially are over 10% (and which some economists assess as closer to 17% in real terms). The prospect  that America (and therefore probably Britain) may be headed for a “double-dip” recession is very much alive.

All of these pieces are still delicately poised. Before they are rearranged in another burst of rapid-fire activity, there are several ways to rate the game Obama is playing.

The terms of judgment

The verdict on the right is already clear. Many American conservatives, for long silenced by Obama’s victory, have found their voice in vehement denunciation of the president. The Republican Party itself may still be directionless and disheartened, but in the media - especially the brash trumpeters on rightwing radio, at Fox News and in the blogosphere - there is confident portrayal of Obama as (in varying degrees) a wimp, a failure, an un-American socialist (or Muslim).

More judicious critics, on either side of the centre-line of American politics, focus on the weakness that flow from the president’s cautious and centrist political character. They doubt that he succeed from that position. The respected Catholic historian Garry Wills has even argued not only that Obama may be a one-term president, but that this would be a far better outcome than leaving America to a prolonged (Vietnam-style) agony in Afghanistan (see “A One-Term President?: The Choice”, New York Review of Books, 3 December 2009).

The Wunderkind of January 2009 has thus lost his shine. It is too soon to write him off: the economy may yet begin to recover soon in a way that would change many calculations, and the passage of a healthcare reform-bill (even a less ambitious one than he wanted) would make a big difference to his political credibility. Obama may yet survive his worst troubles to become - after he has got through the anniversary of his inauguration - the successful president his well-wishers fervently want him to be. If hopes were dupes, as the old hymn says, fears may be liars.

The outcome of the present blitz-chess combination of crises will form a big part of the verdict on Barack Obama’s administration. But it may be even more important to assess his experience in the White House in a broader focus: that is, in relation to the American political system and how it works - and doesn’t work.

The wrong fit

The logic of this approach is in part that Barack Obama’s troubles owe far more to the difficulties he inherited than to any personal or policy failures. More deeply, however, it reflects the need to look hard not just at the man in the White House but at the institutional inadequacies of the American political system as it has evolved over the past two generations.

Three aspects of this evolution are especially worth noting. First, Washington’s government is largely - and embarrassingly - ruled by money. It is estimated that as many as half of the richest counties in the United States are contiguous to the District of Columbia. The ore mined there is public money - money that is so necessary because politicians need millions of dollars for campaign expenses in order to be elected.

Indeed, without the huge sums available for television advertising, a politician in Washington is dead. He knows it, and tailors his priorities accordingly. These in turn reflect the work of lobbyists promoting every conceivable interest, with defence and health-insurance companies among the most active. To break this relentless cycle, the biggest single reform Obama could pass would be to ban political advertising on television.

Second, a presidency already swollen by Woodrow Wilson’s international ambitions and Franklin D Roosevelt’s battles against the great depression and the great dictators was irreversibly transformed by the advent of nuclear weapons and the global commitments of the cold war. In an age of thermonuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic weapons, there was simply no time for Congress to be consulted about the most vital issues. So the Enlightenment republic became the garrison state, and the president its commander-in-chief.

Third, and most dangerous of all, the president of the United States is now expected to assume responsibility for - and to decisively shape - every major world issue. Even during the cold war, American journalist became accustomed to referring to the “leader of the free world”. Today, the expectation of the hugely diversified and demanding American media (and, in consequence, of the American people) is that the president must be a sort of super-ruler with a commanding power that outreaches all his peers, democratic or otherwise. This no longer fits reality, and no longer is it in any way acceptable to the people of Canada or Mexico, Russia or China, Saudi Arabia or India. The world has moved on.

An American political scientist of the 1960s once listed the roles the president should play as: head-of-state, chief executive, commander-in-chief, chief diplomat, chief legislator, party chief, and “voice of the people”. He must be, wrote Clinton Rossiter, “not a Gulliver immobilized by ten thousand tiny cords, nor a Prometheus chained to a rock of frustration . . . he is rather a kind of magnificent lion who can roam widely and do great deeds”.

Such apostles of the imperial presidency, at what still could appear the apogee of American power, did not notice that they were defining a role that the American system - let alone fallen humanity - could not sustain. In 2009-10, there are many in the United States and around the world who would want Barack Obama to be a magnificent lion; but the reality of his homeland and of the world today is that he is indeed chained to a rock of frustration (called the Congress of the United States) and bound - if not entirely immobilised - by a million cords of public opinion and private interest.

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