The downgrading of America’s credit rating just days after the debt ceiling fight ended risk branding Barack Obama’s presidency as an historic failure. The S and P analysts made it clear that they were passing political judgment on the United States, not just making an economic assessment. While Republicans clearly share the blame for American political gridlock, Obama shoulders most of the burden as the Chief Executive of the United States of America.
The perception of American paralysis reflects deep ideological divisions in the country as well as disturbing management failures in the Oval Office. Barack Obama is smart, eloquent, talent but inexperienced as an executive. As a community organizer, an academic, a senator on the state and national levels, he has led but not managed. The presidency is an executive position and it is not a place for on-the-job-training, especially during times of economic catastrophe.
The debt ceiling fight and the ensuing downgrade proved yet again that few politicians fear the current President. Barack Obama seemingly skipped the section in Machiavelli which teaches “it is much safer to be feared than loved.” So far, he has proved himself to be as tough as terrycloth.
Obama’s dainty presidency will continue drifting until both Democrats and Republicans, in Congress and in the Executive Branch, learn that crossing the President has a cost, and that this President, like other strong leaders, will wreak vengeance on errant allies as well as political enemies.
Petulance is not enough. President Obama has repeatedly denounced the Republicans as obstructionist. But these displays of presidential piqué backfired, legitimizing Tea Party claims to being independent trouble makers. Moreover, Obama’s denunciations risk becoming ritualized, more like the fulminations of a substitute teacher who cannot control the class rather than the commands of the disciplinarian assistant principal who restores order.
Obama has long struggled with this problem of presidential wimpiness. Rahm Emanuel swaggered into the Oval Office as White House Chief of Staff to be Obama’s enforcer. Stories about Emanuel’s toughness, such as the time he repeatedly stabbed a steak when talking about Bill Clinton’s political enemies, suggested that Obama understood the need for forceful leadership and the need to compensate for his own conciliatory instincts. But years in the House leadership softened Emanuel, making him too deferential to Congress. Congressional Democrats acted with impunity during the two years they enjoyed a majority in both Houses. The result was the health care bill, among other Congressional concoctions, a bill so complex because it indulged so many legislative whims it is difficult for the President to explain clearly in popular terms.
Obama’s most successful predecessors cultivated reputations for toughness. Theodore Roosevelt conceptualized the White House as a bully pulpit for national leadership while understanding the need to bully the occasional critic. Franklin Roosevelt’s famous challenge, “judge me by the enemies I have made,” today sounds like a wartime boast to contrast his virtues with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. In fact, Roosevelt made this defiant statement during his 1932 campaign visit to Portland, Oregon, vowing to confront greedy public utilities. As president, Roosevelt perfected various techniques for rewarding friends and punishing enemies. He distributed federal goodies like a tyrannical father doles out love, attention, and allowance, favoring the districts of loyal legislators such as Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson, whose constituents then prospered. Conversely, while historians often emphasize Roosevelt’s failure to unseat the conservative Democratic Congressmen he opposed in 1938, targeting some kept others in line.
Ronald Reagan, like Obama, was constitutionally unable to bully party members who strayed or opponents who obstructed. But Reagan, the great delegator, had aides strong-arm others when necessary. Reagan’s Legislative Strategy Group, the LSG, was particularly effective at tracking allies, enemies, and flip-floppers.Early in Reagan’s tenure, when one Republican, Iowa Senator Roger Jepsen, threatened to stray on a difficult foreign policy vote to sell the air force’s sophisticated AWACS to Saudi Arabia, the LSG kept him in line. “We just beat his brains in,” the White House political director Ed Rollins exulted publicly, if indiscreetly.
More broadly, Reagan knew he had to telegraph toughness, especially because many underestimated him as a mere actor and a political amateur. Reagan entered office at a time of economic upheaval, following the presidency of Jimmy Carter, whose pessimistic sermonizing was mocked in the infamous headline a Boston Globe copyeditor jokingly set and then mistakenly ran: “MUSH FROM THE WIMP.” In August 1981, when members of the Air Traffic Controllers’ Union, PATCO, went on strike, Reagan gave the controllers’ 48-hours to return to work. Two days later, he fired those who continued striking. “I’ve asked so many leading European financiers when and why they started pumping money into this country,” a British businessman based in Washington said years later, “and they all said the same thing: when Reagan broke the controllers’ strike.”
President Obama, like all effective leaders, must remain authentic. Seeking to play the role of the moderate is natural for him, and commendable. But many of America’s most successful presidents understood they had to be muscular moderates, building consensus without playing the patsy. The political scientist Richard Neustadt characterized the power of the Presidency as the power to persuade. In fact, presidential power also comes from the ability to reward and punish, to create careers and destroy others – demanding a ruthlessness in domestic politics Barack Obama has rarely displayed. Celebrities just want to be loved. Leaders, even muscular moderates, should be feared, respected, and, if possible, as an added bonus, loved too.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a Visiting Scholar affiliated with the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.
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