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No We Can’t

Obama’s vanishing charisma

Mar 8, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 24 • By JOHN H. CHETTLE
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One casualty of the serial crises confounding American politics of late is President Obama’s charisma, heretofore seemingly one of his greatest assets. As Politico pointedly asked, “Obama’s charisma: Where did he leave it?” Pundits and commentators have even raised the question of whether he might after all be “just another politician.”

No We Can’t

But the more pressing question, given that the president has at least three more years in office, is whether Obama can fill this sudden charisma vacuum. Can he get his mojo back?

The best answer may lie in the writings of the sociologist Max Weber, who died nearly 90 years ago. Weber famously introduced the concept of charisma into sociology, and his theories have an almost uncanny relevance to the present American scene.

By “charisma” Weber was referring mainly to the quasi-magical qualities of the great religious leaders, but also the “exceptional qualities” of leaders like those in politics. Charisma was, he wrote in a series of papers published under the title On Charisma and Institution Building, difficult to maintain, particularly in a democracy, where it was often based on mere “short-lived mass emotion.”

It took time for Barack Obama to generate that emotion. He may have excited the 2004 Democratic Convention with his keynote speech, but at the start of the 2008 campaign, his experience was something else. In an early appearance, he joined other Democrats to reenact Bloody Sunday in Selma, crossing the Pettus Bridge, arms linked, in commemoration of the famous civil rights march. After the ceremony, Obama waited, cramped and perspiring, in his small plane on the tarmac at Selma while his pilot struggled to jump-start a dead battery. Two large motorcades, meanwhile, swept Bill and Hillary Clinton onto the airfield to their two waiting Gulfstream jets. 

Obama began to attract large crowds, particularly after he won the Iowa caucuses, but it took a crisis—as Weber wrote that it usually does—to unleash the phenomenon. The economic meltdown, late in the campaign, created the urgency that triggers the search for a savior. The fact that Obama was an African American lent poignancy to the search. Many, even among his opponents, wondered whether he might be the instrument of a new racial reconciliation. To some  supporters he seemed to be, in Weber’s phrase, “a gift of God.” 

How fleeting that impression proved to be. “Conflicts that were supposed to be transformed by his magic are immune to his magic,” wrote Leon Wieseltier recently in the New Republic. “He has no magic. There is no magic.” “The animating spirit that electrified his political movement,” wrote New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, “has sputtered out.”

But this is the perennial problem of the charismatic leader. To maintain his charisma, Weber argued, a leader must continually prove himself. “If he wants to be a prophet,” Weber wrote, “he must perform miracles.” And—in a passage relevant to Obama’s Afghanistan policy—“If he wants to be a war lord he must perform heroic deeds.” Similarly, if he wants to be a great president, it is not enough to announce transformative plans, he must achieve them. If he wants to be a great peacemaker, he must make peace. Charisma needs to be stoked by continual success. 

Obama’s problem may be one his opponents pointed to during the campaign, a lack of substance. Like many candidates for president, though more successfully than most, he pretended that the world could be made anew, that the passion generated at his rallies could be carried over into the sober business of government. 

Weber saw that the charismatic leader who emerged in a democracy was likely to be the individual “who is the most spectacular, who promises the most, or else employs the most effective propaganda.” His promises would be utopian and therefore impossible to achieve. “Even in America,” wrote Weber dryly, political charisma “has not always come up to expectations.” 

It is hard to see Obama’s objectives as other than utopian: a health care policy that extends coverage to tens of millions but doesn’t cost more; a carbon emissions policy that cuts emissions by 17 percent in ten years, and by 83 percent by 2050, without damaging the economy or causing further job loss; and huge spending that requires no additional taxes from the middle class. To quote George Will’s summary judgment: “This. Will. Not. Happen.” Actual change, Weber noted, is greatly dependent on the objective forces of the market.

Obama’s foreign policy seems to have been designed at Hogwarts. It was courageous of the president to send a further 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, but he undercut that move by announcing he would start bringing them back in 18 months, soon after the last of the reinforcements are deployed. He wants to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and North Korea from proliferating. He wants to make peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, a laudable aim pursued by the last 11 U.S. administrations. No quick triumphs visible in this lot.

Somehow, while pursuing these missions improbable, the charismatic leader must retain the devotion of his followers. Today, with the president’s approval rating below 50 percent and even leading Democrats conceding the possibility that the Republicans may regain control of both houses of Congress in 2010, Obama’s supporters are increasingly nervous.

To a charismatic leader in such a predicament, Weber offered advice that is surprisingly contemporary. The leader should give bureaucratic form to some part of his vision and thus “routinize” charisma, as Weber put it. Bureaucracies, he argued, are almost impossible to dislodge. This may be part of the reason for the haste with which Obama is pursuing health care in the midst of a recession. Once some Obama health reform is in place, it will be there for good.

But how in the meantime is Obama to propitiate his base? If his leadership fails to benefit them, his charismatic authority will dwindle further. Weber’s advice was simple: Raise taxes on your opponents and give the benefits to your followers. Obama and his congressional supporters are right on script: Repeal the Bush tax cuts. Raise the capital gains tax. Restore the estate tax. Enact a health care tax on couples earning more than $250,000, plus a Medicare payroll tax surcharge, a tax on generous health plans, even a war surtax.

But here Weber issued a warning: Some followers of the charismatic leader must be allowed to avoid these “irksome taxes.” They should be allowed to become what Weber called the “priests” of the developing “church.” So it is that by a wave of the hand, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid exempts the good people of Nevada—and several other states lucky enough to have priests with close access to Father Harry—from onerous health charges for five years. And Barney Frank, distressed that some of the car dealerships in Massachusetts should get the heave-ho from General Motors or the car czar, sees to it that their place in the church is also respected.

Weber counseled further that the priestly power to protect favored followers belongs “to all who participate in the process of appropriation.” Writing nearly a century ago, he can hardly be blamed for failing to foresee that the chairmen of the subcommittees of the all-powerful Appropriations Committee of the House of Representatives would be known not as “priests” but as the “College of Cardinals.” Theirs, Weber wrote, is “the type of prestige earned by ruling groups.” And for anyone who may harbor doubts about the seemliness of all the rewards funneled to contributors, lobbyists, buddies, state-mates, union leaders, altar-boys, acolytes, and assorted hangers-on—rewards that the charismatic candidate vowed to get rid of—Weber offered this assurance: It is a process “very conspicuous in Buddhism and in the Hindu Sects.”

But the trouble is that a deficit likely to grow by at least $7 trillion over the next ten years is uncontrollable. Every major entitlement—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—has ended up costing vastly more than first projected. Yet we solemnly repeat the calculations of the Congressional Budget Office as if its past predictions had actually meant something. We overlook the fact that the priests are always ready with further promises. 

And there’s the rub. Despite Obama’s promise that 98 percent of Americans would get a tax cut, polls show that virtually everybody expects higher taxes, from seniors paying more to heat their homes, to young workers paying a penalty if they don’t have health insurance. As voters are fast learning, charisma, like most “free gifts,” comes at a hefty price. And voters are showing an increasing restiveness about paying.

We should be very grateful that political charisma has so short a shelf-life in the United States. Judging by our media, there would seem to be no country more hospitable to charisma—especially where charisma is uncontroversial, as in the case of its cousin, celebrity. Our curiosity about the lives, loves, and looks of the famous and infamous is insatiable. But where charisma impinges upon our own lives and interests, there is no country more searching and skeptical.

The Founding Fathers lived in a period when charisma as we know it hadn’t been invented, yet they designed a system that could hardly be more hostile to charismatic government. With their checks and balances, their power ranged against power, their suspicion of unchecked authority, their deliberative process, they seem to have foreseen the perils of charisma. They understood the dangers of “short-lived mass emotion” to which democracies have always been exposed.

It is a reassuring conclusion. If President Obama is to achieve any portion of his objectives, he will have to do it the old-fashioned way, by persuasion, by negotiation, by a focus on the attainable—yes, even by Harry Reid’s horse-trading—and not by charisma. 

John H. Chettle is a former Washington lawyer who teaches history and is writing a book entitled What Do Presidents Read? And Why It Matters.

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