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Has Obama Become a Publicist for His Own Presidency?

The President, whose approval ratings hover over 40 percent, has a unique method of political maneuvering that sets him apart from his predecessors.

| Mon Mar. 10, 2014 12:32 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Like many days, March 3rd saw the delivery of a stern opinion by President Obama. To judge by recent developments in Ukraine, he said, Russia was putting itself "on the wrong side of history." This might seem a surprising thing for an American president to say. The fate of Soviet Communism taught many people to be wary of invoking History as if it were one's special friend or teammate. But Obama doubtless felt comfortable because he was quoting himself. "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent," he said in his 2009 inaugural address, "know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." In January 2009 and again in March 2014, Obama was speaking to the world as its uncrowned leader.

For some time now, observers—a surprisingly wide range of them—have been saying that Barack Obama seems more like a king than a president. Leave aside the fanatics who think he is a "tyrant" of unparalleled powers and malignant purpose. Notions of that sort come easily to those who look for them; they are predigested and can safely be dismissed. But the germ of a similar conclusion may be found in a perception shared by many others. Obama, it is said, takes himself to be something like a benevolent monarch—a king in a mixed constitutional system, where the duties of the crown are largely ceremonial. He sees himself, in short, as the holder of a dignified office to whom Americans and others may feel naturally attuned.

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A large portion of his experience of the presidency should have discouraged that idea. Obama's approval ratings for several months have been hovering just above 40%. But whatever people may actually think of him, the evidence suggests that this has indeed been his vision of the presidential office—or rather, his idea of his function as a holder of that office. It is a subtle and powerful fantasy, and it has evidently driven his demeanor and actions, as far as reality permitted, for most of his five years in office.

What could have given Obama such a strange perspective on how the American political system was meant to work? Let us not ignore one obvious and pertinent fact. He came to the race for president in 2007 with less practice in governing than any previous candidate. At Harvard Law School, Obama had been admired by his professors and liked by his fellow students with one reservation: in an institution notorious for displays of youthful pomposity, Obama stood out for the self-importance of his "interventions" in class. His singularity showed in a different light when he was elected editor of the Harvard Law Review—the first law student ever to hold that position without having published an article in a law journal. He kept his editorial colleagues happy by insisting that the stance of the Review need not be marked by bias or partisanship. It did not have to be liberal or conservative, libertarian or statist. It could be "all of the above."

This pattern—the ascent to become presider-in-chief over large projects without any encumbering record of commitments—followed Obama into a short and uneventful legal career, from which no remarkable brief has ever been cited. In an adjacent career as a professor of constitutional law, he was well liked again, though his views on the most important constitutional questions were never clear to his students. The same was true of his service as a four-term Illinois state senator, during which he cast a remarkable number of votes in the noncommittal category of "present" rather than "yea" or "nay." Finally, the same pattern held during his service in the US Senate, where, from his first days on the floor, he was observed to be restless for a kind of distinction and power normally denied to a junior senator.

Extreme caution marked all of Obama's early actions in public life. Rare departures from this progress-without-a-trail—such as his pledge to filibuster granting immunity to the giants of the telecommunications industry in order to expose them to possible prosecution for warrantless surveillance—appear in retrospect wholly tactical. The law journal editor without a published article, the lawyer without a well-known case to his credit, the law professor whose learning was agreeably presented without a distinctive sense of his position on the large issues, the state senator with a minimal record of yes or no votes, and the US senator who between 2005 and 2008 refrained from committing himself as the author of a single piece of significant legislation: this was the candidate who became president in January 2009.

The Man Without a Record

Many of these facts were rehearsed in the 2008 primaries by Hillary Clinton. More was said by the Republicans in the general election. Yet the accusations were thrown onto a combustible pile of so much rubbish—so much that was violent, racist, and untrue, and spoken by persons manifestly compromised or unbalanced—that the likely inference was tempting to ignore. One could hope that, whatever the gaps in his record, they would not matter greatly once Obama reached the presidency.

His performance in the campaign indicated that he had a coherent mind, did not appeal to the baser passions, and was a fluent synthesizer of other people's facts and opinions. He commanded a mellow baritone whose effects he enjoyed watching only a little too much, and he addressed Americans in just the way a dignified and yet passionate president might address us. The contrast with George W. Bush could not have been sharper. And the decisiveness of that contrast was the largest false clue to the political character of Obama.

He was elected to govern when little was known about his approach to the practical business of leading people. The unexplored possibility was, of course, that little was known because there was not much to know. Of the Chicago organizers trained in Saul Alinsky's methods of community agitation, he had been considered among the most averse to conflict. Incongruously, as Jeffrey Stout has pointed out in Blessed Are the Organized, Obama shunned "polarization" as a valuable weapon of the weak. His tendency, instead, was to begin a protest by depolarizing. His goal was always to bring the most powerful interests to the table. This should not be dismissed as a temperamental anomaly, for temperament may matter far more in politics than the promulgation of sound opinions. The significance of his theoretical expertise and practical distaste for confrontation would emerge in the salient event of his career as an organizer.

As Obama acknowledged in a revealing chapter of his memoir, Dreams from My Father, the event in question had begun as a protest with the warmest of hopes. He was aiming to draw the attention of the Chicago housing authority to the dangers of asbestos at Altgeld Gardens, the housing project where he worked. After a false start and the usual set of evasions by a city agency, a public meeting was finally arranged at a local gymnasium. Obama gave instructions to two female tenants, charged with running the meeting, not to let the big man from the city do too much of the talking. He then retired to the back of the gym.

The women, as it turned out, lacked the necessary skill. They taunted and teased the city official. One of them dangled the microphone in front of him, snatched it away, and then repeated the trick. He walked out insulted and the meeting ended in chaos. And where was Obama? By his own account, he remained at the back of the room, waving his arms—too far away for anyone to read his signals. In recounting the incident, he says compassionately that the women blamed themselves even though the blame was not all theirs. He does not say that another kind of organizer, seeing things go so wrong, would have stepped forward and taken charge.

"I Can't Hear You"

"Leading from behind" was a motto coined by the Obama White House to describe the president's posture of cooperation with NATO, when, after a long and characteristic hesitation, he took the advice of Hillary Clinton's State Department against Robert Gates's Defense Department and ordered the bombing of Libya. Something like that description had been formulated earlier by reporters covering his distant and self-protective negotiations with Congress in the progress of his health-care law. When the phrase got picked up and used in unexpected ways, his handlers tried to withdraw it. Leading from behind, they insisted, did not reflect the president's real attitude or the intensity of his engagement.

In Libya, all the world knew that the planning for the intervention was largely done by Americans, and that the missiles and air cover were supplied by the United States. Obama was the leader of the nation that was bringing down yet another government in the Greater Middle East. After Afghanistan and Iraq, this marked the third such American act of leadership since 2001. Obama, however, played down his own importance at the time; his energies went into avoiding congressional demands that he explain what sort of enterprise he was leading.

By the terms of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, a president needs congressional approval before he can legally commit American armed forces in "hostilities" abroad. But according to the argument offered by Obama's lawyers, hostilities were only hostilities if an American was killed; mere wars, on the other hand, the president can fight as he pleases—without the approval of Congress. No American soldier having been killed in Libya, it followed that Obama could lead the country from behind without congressional approval. This delicate legal sophistry served its temporary purpose and the bombing went forward. Yet the awkward description, "leading from behind," would not go away. These days, the phrase is mostly used as a taunt by war-brokers whose idea of a true leader runs a remarkably narrow gamut from former president George W. Bush to Senator John McCain. These people would have no trouble with Obama if only he gave us more wars.

The curious fact remains that, in Obama's conception of the presidency, leading from behind had a concrete meaning long before the Libyan intervention. When approached before the 2008 election by labor leaders, community organizers, foreign policy dissenters, and groups concerned with minority rights and environmental protection, each of which sought assurance that he intended to assist their cause, Obama would invariably cup his ear and say, "I can't hear you."

The I-can't-hear-you anecdote has been conveyed both in print and informally; and it is plain that the gesture and the phrase had been rehearsed. Obama was, in fact, alluding to a gesture President Franklin Roosevelt is said to have made when the great civil rights organizer A. Philip Randolph put a similar request to him around 1940. Roosevelt, in effect, was saying to Randolph: You command a movement with influence, and there are other movements you can call on. Raise a cry so loud it can't be mistaken. Make me do what you want me to do; I'm sympathetic to your cause, but the initiative can't come from me.

It was clever of Obama to quote the gesture. At the same time, it was oddly irresponsible. After all, in the post-New Deal years, the union and civil rights movements had tremendous clout in America. They could make real noise. No such combination of movements existed in 2008.

And yet, in 2008 there had been a swell of popular opinion and a convergence of smaller movements around a cause. That cause was the candidacy of Barack Obama. The problem was that "Obama for America" drank up and swept away the energy of all those other causes, just as Obama's chief strategist David Plouffe had designed it to do. Even in 2009, with the election long past, "Obama for America" (renamed "Organizing for America") was being kept alive under the fantastical conceit that a sitting president could remain a movement leader-from-behind, even while he governed as the ecumenical voice of all Americans. If any cause could have pulled the various movements back together and incited them to action after a year of electioneering activity on Obama's behalf, that cause would have been a massive jobs-creation program and a set of policy moves to rouse the environmental movement and address the catastrophe of climate change.

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