Barack Obama and Political Transformation

During the Presidential election campaign of 2008, I thought I saw four reasons why Barack Obama had significant potential to be a transformational President.

First, I thought that he would change the definition of what it means to be a typical American.  He was reinventing American political culture by reimagining the American dream by addressing the problems of the great American dilemma, the continuing legacies of slavery.

Second, I thought he would move the political center from right to left on the great issue of the relationship between state and markets. He would demonstrate that government is not primarily the problem, as the Republicans since Reagan have maintained, but a major democratic institution that can help address the pressing problems of our times.

And third and fourth, I thought that the way he did politics and the way he spoke about politics, the way he was supported by a mobilized social movement wanting fundamental change, using what I call “the politics of small things,” and the way he used eloquence against sound bits, also marked a great political transformation. The form of his politics would be as significant as its contents.

I wonder what the readers of Deliberately Considered think at this time. I present here my preliminary judgments.

On formal issues I think he has delivered, in the case of eloquence, against his opponents, in the case of “the politics of small things,” with them.

The Tea Party and the Obama campaign are opposed in many ways, but they have in common that their power is generated by ordinary people meeting, speaking to each other and developing a capacity of acting in concert, i.e. they generate power in the sense of Hannah Arendt. I passionately support the ends of one of these movements and oppose the other. But a new, more democratic form is with us.

When his opponents attack him using sound bites, from the denunciations of “Obamacare,” to the birthers and the like, Obama’s reasonable responses seem to be at least as powerful. At a minimum, he shows that traditional eloquence has a fighting chance against media manipulations of his Fox and friends opponents. There are those who want him to go on the ideological warpath, who think of him as being too soft. But his rhetorical toughness should be noted, though it is often overlooked, most recently in his speech on the deficit last week. It’s not only a matter of what he says but how he says it.

On the matters of crucial substance, there is an ongoing battle, with an unpleasant victory on the one hand, redefining American identity, and, on the other hand, a real struggle, redefining the American center.

There is something truly unpleasant about the birther movement , the appeal of Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Donald Trump. They resist an African American President because of his identity. They want “to take our country back.” They portray a moderate man with quiet dignity as a demagogic fascist. Sometimes they are more explicit, portraying him with clearly racist terms and images. But I have a sense that they are pretty obviously fighting a losing battle, appearing more as clowns than the political monsters they could be if they had any chance of success. Those fighting against the diverse society that America is becoming, and that Obama celebrates and embodies, are fighting against demographics and bound to failure.

In the battle over the political economy, in his project to move the center left, Obama’s accomplishments are more contested. I don’t take seriously those who view him as a hard leftist, Marxist or socialist. This view which includes many Republicans, I think, has to be either silly tendentious exaggeration, perhaps serving ideological purposes in the sense of Clifford Geertz, or racism, i.e. in the cry “we have to take our country back.” I think it’s pretty clear, Obama is a left of center conventional Democrat. Some reasonable critics are concerned that he is insufficiently centrist, Michael Corey, for example in his reply to my last week in review post, or insufficiently leftist, Amy Stuart in her response to my post on Obama’s speech last week. She thinks he hasn’t stood up to Republicans and is accepting their story “about the need for austerity measures at a time of high unemployment and general economic slump.” He thinks that he is posturing, politicking already, not addressing the pressing problem of the deficit and the economy.

I tend to think that Obama is too accommodating to those who deny his legitimacy. More often than not, I want him to push harder to move things in a more progressive direction. Yet, unlike his critics who denounce him, as being no different than his Republican opponents, I think he is getting a lot done, on the four grounds I raised during his Presidential campaign. I still think he may be a transformational President, working to address very complicated problems in a reasonable way. Last week, before his speech, I felt that he desperately needed to distinguish his position from those of the Republicans. I am pleased he did, and I hope for follow through. On the other hand, I know he has to get the debt ceiling raised, and that short and medium term solutions to unemployment and economic crises have to be enacted, just as long term policies  addressing both the problems of the deficit and social justice must be.

Elections are times when such issues should be discussed. The discussions don’t get in the way of good governance. They are a necessity. Also necessary is a clarification to how our political terrain and discourse is organized, i.e. understanding what are left, right and center, and how they relate. I will turn to this subject in an upcoming post. I hope others join me in this inquiry.

  • http://fmpait.blogspot Felipe Pait

    I think the issue is content, not form, even less so right-and-left. Obama’s tone and position are fine. The extremist right is loud and obnoxious. But the reason they run congress is because the economy is lousy. If Obama had managed to get Congress to pass a proper stimulus package, to approve health care without procrastinating until the Democrats had lost their supermajority in the Senate, or at least to pass the budget on time, the economy would be better, and no one would be listening to the extreme right.

    Sure, the Bush & Greenspan & banks & house owners-engineered recession was the worst since the Depression, and would have been much worse without government intervention. But Obama was the president, Democrats controlled Congress, together they did not do enough, and got blamed for it. The problem was lack of enough action, not style. The politics of big things, if you want.

  • Rafael

    Not sure, Felipe. It sounds as though you think that, say, the Tea Party is primarily mobilized and strengthened by the perception, legitimate as it might be, that not enough was made. Maybe to some degree, but it seems to me that Tea Party folk are focusing primarily on issues such as where obama was actually born, on Obama being a “Marxist,” “pro-gay,” an environmental zealot, a Muslim cleric in disguise, etc. They have to take their country back largely because of these things, because it is improper to have in the White House a pro-gay Muslim in disguise. Something other than the usual economic and political issues is takin place. This is a movement that gets part of its strength from highly ideological non-issues (which by the way, has been the special characteristic of all narrowly doctrinarian movements on the left and on the right). In fact, I half jokingly add that not small –but tiny things, tiny issues, and even non-issues primarily mobilize this politically important movement; tiny issues that have managed to take the central stage, one conversation at a time.

  • http://fmpait.blogspot Felipe Pait

    Let me try to explain better. The wingnuts are there, mobilized by all sorts of nutty ideas, not by anything that we in the reality-based community would recognize. They have always been everywhere and always will. There is no point discussing their views. Maybe anthropologists or psychologists could, but it is not a questions of logic, issues, or politics.

    The question is why they are so influential in the US right now. It is because a plurality of middle-of-the road voters voted for right-wing Republicans. Why did they do it? Because when times are bad and it doesn’t look like things are improving, people vote against. Against what? Just against.

    If the right wing of the Republican party did not control the House and did not threaten to win the presidency, the wingnuts would be irrelevant. We would only read about them in the gossip pages of newspapers. As it happens, say, in France, except in those unusual circumstances when “reasonable people” fail so miserably at the art of governing that the lepenistes threaten to take over by winning votes in the middle. You can supply more examples. My take is that the emphasis needs to be in the “art of governing”. Run the country well, and keep the fools away from the crazies. Run it poorly, they join forces. Together the mean and the stupid may form a majority.

  • Michael Corey

    Jeff asked what readers thought about the reasons he used to make the judgment that President Obama had the significant potential to be a transformation President (personally, I have hopes that President Obama can be a transformational leader, but my criteria are somewhat different).

    First on Jeff’s list is changing the definition of what it means to be a typical American, and making progress on addressing the American dilemma. In my view, he has made progress on the first element, but I fail to see much progress on the second. To approach the second, I think that Gunnar Myrdal’s observations need to be refreshed for everything that has taken place since his study was done. On the second issue, shifting the political center to the left on the relationships between state and markets and demonstrating that the government is a solution rather than a problem, I believe the results are mixed. There has been a hardening on the left and right, and the center is in flux. The third and fourth criteria, the President’s use of “the politics of small things” to support social change; and form and content of the way the President addresses politics, are also mixed. “The politics of small things” has been an effective process for both him and his opponents; and his rhetoric and popularity have soared when addressing issues in non partisan ways; and have been negatively impacted in the center and right when falling back into traditional partisan politicking. At least that is the way that I see it.

    When I heard the keynote speech that then Senate candidate Obama made at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, I thought that he had the potential to be President and possibly be a transformational leader. At the time, I expected that he would be elected to the Senate and then run for another office that would give him executive experience prior to making a run for President. This happened much faster than I anticipated and unfortunately he didn’t have the benefits from serving as an executive.

    I believe that he still has the potential to be a transformational leader; however, it will take a significant amount of work. He has all the qualitative tools including charisma for this to happen. Transformational leaders need to have a clearly stated vision and values that drive subsequent actions. The vision and values need to be compelling in order to muster support from followers and convert others. Broad bases of people need to trust him, believe that he is acting in a fair manner, is an exemplar for mutual respect, and be seen as honest in his dealings. Many of these values which are necessary for transformational form are inconsistent with a partisan approach to issues. It is clear that the left feels that President Obama embraces these concepts, but the center is skeptical and the right has significant doubts. A non partisan, fact based approach to problem solving in which consensus making processes are used can help break down opposition. I’m assuming that he can communicate a compelling vision.

    Here is a specific example of lack of clarity. In his State of the Union address, the President used the theme of Winning the Future, and the following five pillars: new rules for Wall Street; investment in education; investment in renewable energy and technology; health-care reform; and deficit reduction. The terms winning the future have not been operationalized. What does win mean? How do we know we won? In what time frame? The pillars are interesting policy points of emphasis; however, they don’t constitute a plan for returning the United States to a full employment, economically and financially viable economy which generates significant value for all of our stakeholders while caring for the most vulnerable and being a responsible steward for our resources and the environment. In one form or another, he has touched on many of these, but thus far he hasn’t linked them in a coherent plan. This is his challenge, assuming that he agrees with many of these goals. Recently, President Obama added the concept of the social compact to his messages; however, he hasn’t made clear which approach to the social compact he supports: Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau or another approach. People don’t need to know the philosphers, but they do need to know what his approach is the social compact.

    I hope that President Obama can implement his original post-partisan intent, and become the transformational leader that I believe that he can be.

  • Scott

    Certainly Barack Obama’s presidential campaign was based in part on the “politics of small things” and that is in part why he won. But Obama also received significant corporate backing. I think this explains his sometimes mystifying stance on progressive issues. Ultimately, Obama is a pragmatic centrist, not a progressive. As to whether or not he could be a “transformational President,” I think this rests in part on how well he manages economic matters. I believe his success here, which is not actually entirely in his hands, will be the basis of his legitimacy. Given that as a cornerstone, and especially if he wins a second term, Obama has the potential to change politics as we know it. Of course, this has been the hope for some time now.

  • Tim Rosenkranz

    By looking at Jeff’s four original points about Obama being a transformational president, one can argue that he is. I still wonder though if it is really the political actor Obama that is transformational or if he is the expression of a transforming society and was able to channel this energy. Either way, I also agree with Jeff that there were false expectations of Obama being more left than he actually is. Interestingly also the outside US-expectations were unreasonably high, which actually let to him receiving a Nobel Peace Prize (for what again?). But this is not Obama’s fault.

    I think unfortunately though these expectations make him a ‘transformational’ president in a fifth point: The potential of political, electoral participation of the further left and especially younger voters might be, through his presidency, irreparable damaged. This is the flipside of the mass-movement Obama mobilized. Will these young voters come to the polls again or will they be disenchanted since the magical moment of the mythical figure Obama has passed since inauguration into the rationalized process of politics?

    I do not want to judge if he over- or underachieved on issues of healthcare, Irak, Afghanistan. Or if he actually kept campaign promises on these issues, or if people simply reflected their own expectations into his policies and got disappointed. But I see the danger that a lot of younger voters and voters from the further democratic left might withdraw again from the political process of democracy and will not vote next election, maybe never again. Here lies the actual danger for democracy in the US (and actually in most other democracies too): Low political participation (and I see voting as the easiest form of participation) challenges democracy at its core and de-legitimizes its outcomes. And if Obama has the potential to be transformational in the way he could draw people into participation, I fear he might be as transformation in the the opposite direction.

    Here Obama’s responsibility can be best illustrated through his stance and action on two main issues: His wavering about “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and his lack of a normative stance on Guantanamo. It does not matter if it is politically viable to close Guantanamo or if it is juridically possible to trial the inmates in the US. Obama had a clear stance, that Guantanamo is ethically not sustainable. If now he can not close it and face the consequences, he appears as ethically weak and a lot of people ask rightly: What happened to change?

    Change was the magic word and I just want to make one last point on this: In the end Obama might just be perceived as another politician by a lot of people he motivated with promising to bring change to the political culture of Washington. He was able to form a movement on the basis of new media and here he is truly transformational as Jeff says. But, just look at the the media-narrative of the beginning of his new campaign for re-election. The first articles I read were all about the 1 billion dollars he wants to raise through a grassroots, social media campaign. Money was as important for his first campaign, but it was not the perceived goal of his grassroots, new media attempts. I am not saying that Obama is responsible through his actions for this changed narrative, but as a Kracauerian “surface manifestation” (admitted, I stretch Kracauer’s concept here a bit)it hints at a changed perception in public: From the transformational figure mobilizing a viable, excited, issue-oriented, grassroots community to a president running for reelection on the basis of an online-fundraising community.

    This does not mean Obama is bad, but he he might also not be better – which will not be good enough for a lot of people. I hope I am wrong.

  • jim lynch

    I only wish you would have included the track record of Obama’s apparent lack of negotiation skills. Two examples: his budget concessions to the Republican house leadership. This is a “negotiation” that resulted in one negotiator (house republicans) getting more than they asked for at the beginning of the negotiations! In other words, obama negotiated against himself.

    This is not the first example in his presidency of an appalling incompetence at the negotiating table. Remember healthcare reform? Here is the basic Negotiations 101 drill: you start out with a home run swing by stating your position that you demand single-payor/universal healthcare/“medicare for all”. perhaps after defending your position (never negotiate a position you cannot defend) you COMPROMISE (perhaps) with a mid-ground of some kind, like the so-called Public Option. But NO, obama came out of the gate with public option and had to fade all the way to his truly weak plan that keeps big pharma and big insurance running what should be social programs. he is then rewarded with a sneering label OBAMACARE from the willfully ignorant that has been spoon fed propaganda that he is a socialist from Kenya!

    Now, trot out barack obama’s resume, see all the top shelf universities and his success as a community organizer and I ask you … do you smell a rat? How could he set up a pattern of such lousy negotiations unless some kind of a fix was in? no, everything is not a conspiracy, but really now … think about it.

    this isnt left/right, but it sure looks like plutocracy cashing in with the military-industrial-complex. trojan horse anyone?

  • Michael Corey

    There are both art and science aspects to negotiating. Many good negotiating programs are associated with major universities. G. Richard Shell wrote in his 2006 book, Bargaining for Advantage: Negotiation Strategies for Reasonable People, “… skilled negotiators see more than just opening offers, counteroffers, and closing moves when they look at what happens at the bargaining table.” Shell describes his approach as “information-based bargaining.” Shell helps lead Wharton’s Executive Negotiation Workshop at the University of Pennsylvania.

    Two influential books on the joint gain approach to negotiating originate from people associated with the Harvard Negotiation Project at Harvard Law School: Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher and William Ury (2nd edition, 1991); and Getting Past No: Negotiating Your Way from Confrontation to Cooperation by William Ury (Revised edition 1993). In 2005, Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro published Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate.

    In my opinion, the reasons why so many negotiations fail are: inadequate preparation work is not invested before negotiations begin; a well-thought out process is not used; and negotiators fail to respect one another. Great negotiators are usually great listeners and observers. Successful negotiations tend to be fact and interest based. Managing relationships during negotiations is extremely important. Efforts are made to build trust among the participants; and, the discussions are characterized by fairness, mutual respect and honesty.
    In my experience, I’ve found joint gain approaches to negotiations substantially more productive than adversarial approaches to negotiating.

  • Barbara

    “There is something truly unpleasant about the birther movement , the appeal of Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Donald Trump. They resist an African American President because of his identity. They want ‘to take our country back.'”

    Yes. Agreed. But we should also note that his identity is the basis for much of his support. In distinguishing Obama from his Democratic competitors, many saw him as more left, more progressive. This was not (often) based on position, but rather, on identity and its supposed referents.