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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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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.

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