It’s the presidency, not the president

Barack Obama’s great promise is so far unfulfilled. But his record in office - and his capacity to improve it - must also be measured against the nature of the institution he heads, says Godfrey Hodgson.
Godfrey Hodgson
19 January 2010

To be disappointed is often to have had unreasonable or unachievable expectations.

If many are disappointed with Barack Obama’s first year as United States president it may be because they did indeed expect more from him than he could ever have achieved in this short period.

It is time to move the focus from Obama’s personal and political performance to the problems of the office he has occupied since his inauguration on 20 January 2009. The shift starts with an understanding that a dramatic transformation in the nature of the presidency has occurred over the past century: involving first a revolution in power, which inflated expectations, and then schism, which has made it so hard to fulfil them.

A process that began with Woodrow Wilson, developed even more under Franklin D Roosevelt, and intensified in the post-1945 era saw the United States presidency slowly became more central to the American political system - and so to the vision of Americans. The New Deal, the acquisition of the atomic weapons and of intercontinental means of delivery, the cold war: in combination all these drastically changed the balance of the constitutional system devised by the founding fathers.

Congress retained formidable powers of obstruction, but the White House became the predominant centre of initiative in the American system. Americans looked to their president for action, for comfort and for the fulfilment of what they saw as their national destiny. Harry S Truman and Dwight D Eisenhower managed the emergence of America hegemony with modesty and prudence. John F Kennedy brought a touch of rodomontade to the office, and an imperial nation welcomed an imperial presidency. His successor, Lyndon B Johnson confronted problems, at home and abroad, that had been neglected, if they had been acknowledged at all: racial injustice, a creaking political system, and apparently unlimited thirst for hegemony abroad.

The breach

Then came the schism. Since 1968, when Richard M Nixon was elected, the presidency has oscillated between  “liberals” and “conservatives”. The essential line of division, however, has been not so much ideological as national. Behind arguments about policy, there is a deep and increasingly angry division between those who recognise and want to address shortcomings in American society and in America’s stance in the world, and those who see it as little better than treason even to mention them.

By 1980, significant problems could hardly be denied. American industry was losing its competitive edge. The American economy was becoming dependent on foreign oil. The dollar was no longer almighty. American society was torn by new conflicts, over race, over feminism, even over the American future, while abroad the American example was no longer uncritically followed.

Ronald Reagan’s response was denial. He proclaimed morning in America, and half the country applauded.

Since Reagan, control of the White House has passed from one side to another of this schism, while expectations of the White House have scarcely diminished. By 2008, the schism between “red” and “blue” America was unbridgeable, fed by mutual contempt and suspicion, but also by incompatible interests.

The grand Democratic coalition forged by Franklin Roosevelt, tying together the rural and reactionary south with industrial labour, urban non-Protestants and “hyphenated” Americans conscious of immigrant background, is long gone. In the aftermath of Lyndon Johnson’s Voting Rights Act of 1965, the party system took a new, sharply adversarial shape.

Along came Barack Obama, a contradictory figure in terms of the political system as it had evolved. Obama not only embodied, he called for change. Yet in an adversarial system, he insisted on compromise, moderation, “reaching across the aisle”. In elegant speeches, he tried to rise above the realities of red/blue antagonism. Those realities now threaten to cripple his presidency.

In his election campaign he addressed, as his first priority, the dangerous absurdity of the American healthcare system. Then came the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The sudden national awakening to the seriousness of the financial crisis in the closing weeks of the campaign elected Obama. Certainly he kept his nerve better than John McCain.

The scale of the financial crisis, however, dwarfed even healthcare. And the resistance to healthcare reform did not respond to consensual feelers across the aisle. It may have seemed shrewd, in the context of political convention, to pack the Obama administration with centrist figures such as Tim Geithner and Laurence Summers that were deeply implicated in the reckless deregulation of Wall Street, and a defence secretary (Robert M Gates) from the George W Bush administration. But so far it has not worked.

It has however revealed that Obama, half-African though he may be by ancestry, and progressive, even radical, as he is by instinct, ignores the schism that has divided the parties, paralysed the Congress and made it impossible to meet the impossible expectations heaped on the presidency. 

In recent weeks, several thoughtful liberal commentators (among them Paul Krugman and Michael Tomasky) have rightly argued that the disappointment of the Obama year cannot be blamed on the president alone. They have pointed to detailed flaws in the system, such as the need for a “super majority” of sixty votes in the Senate to pass legislation. Such specific flaws may well need correcting. But it is not they that have frustrated Obama’s excellent instincts and prevented him from addressing urgent problems that threaten the country and indeed the world.

The vice

The central problem is the gap between the unrealistic expectations heaped on the office of the president and the constrained imposed by the schism between the “red” and “blue” camps. As expectations, stoked up by the media, have risen, so the president’s - any president’s - ability to meet them has been undermined.

The (conservative) political scientist Aaron Wildavsky pointed out as long ago as 1975, the presidency has been not so much weakened as isolated. Franklin Roosevelt relied on four connections to the political system to make him effective, and even Roosevelt was not able to end the depression until war came to his aid. They were the Congress; the Democratic Party; the machinery of the permanent government; and the media. All are now atrophied, or at least partially out of the president’s control.

Unlike Lyndon Johnson, who could sit nose to nose with powerful congressmen and senators of both parties and browbeat them into going along with his projects, Obama has restricted influence on Democrats, and none at all on Republicans. As an instrument of presidential leadership, the Democratic Party is broken: men and women run for office as freelances, they raise their own money and depend little or not at all on presidential support. Still less do they feel obliged to support the president in return.

Where the New Deal attracted the brightest and the best to public service, and Jack Kennedy tried to do the same, the morale of government service has been corroded by ceaseless propaganda against “bureaucracy” and by-passed by corporate power, exerted through lobbying. Where FDR and even Johnson could look for some understanding and some help in promoting their messages, Obama is caught between liberal scepticism and conservative ambush.

The task

What, as Lenin asked, is to be done?

Barack Obama has relied on a combination of centrist symbolism and high-flown rhetoric. Neither has yet been conspicuously successful.

It may be that when he gives his state-of-the-union speech, not yet scheduled, but due in early February 2010 at the latest, the president will be able to claim credit for a major health-reform measure. No “public option” to keep the health-insurance providers honest, but a few million fewer uninsured. It will be disappointing to his core supporters, but it may achieve significant incremental improvement.

On the economy, Obama has fared even worse. The official unemployment rate is a steady 10% in January 2010 but by the most relevant measure it remains as high as 17%. The bankers (like their imitators in Britain) are simply snubbing the administration’s call to revive lending, and helping themselves to high profits, restored share prices and more or less record bonuses. Obama’s core supporters are not only disappointed: they are hurting and many of them are furious. Obama has proposed populist taxation. But the banks have shown that they believe themselves above the reach of a mere president.

Abroad, Hillary Clinton claims in her Hawaii speech on 12 January 2010 that “America is back” in Asia. The administration ignores Europe. It is frustrated, even humiliated, in the middle east. It is reeling in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and facing new dangers in such desperate places as Yemen and Somalia. At the climate-change summit in Copenhagen, President Obama was deliberately snubbed by the Chinese, and with impunity. So much for self-pleasing Washington fantasies about a G2 dyarchy to rule the world!

Barack Obama is a gifted politician and half of America fervently wants him to succeed. He may yet achieve a respectable record in time to prevent the defeats that now threaten him in the mid-term congressional and other elections this coming November.

If he is to meet his own goals and the expectations he aroused so brilliantly a year ago, he must close Guantánamo, persuade his countrymen that he knows what he is doing in Afghanistan and rescue the economy. He must address those two problems that threaten the very viability of his office: the burden of excessive expectations and the grim reality of ideological schism about the state and destiny of the union.

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