The Magazine

The Unpresidential President

Barack Obama has managed a rare feat: The longer he holds office, the more he diminishes in stature.

Aug 2, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 43 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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Weber stressed the relational aspect of charisma. It depends not just on the qualities of the figure from above, but also on the needs of the followers from below. In the many narratives written so far of Obama’s meteoric rise in 2008, insufficient attention has been given to the demand side. Obama came to the fore in a period that was charismatically challenged—indeed, strikingly lacking in political leaders of stature or even, more modestly, of political heft. Take the Senate. Who in 2008 stood out as a substantial figure, other than John McCain or Ted Kennedy? Was it Chris Dodd? Harry Reid? The same held true for the House of Representatives—where a deficit of stature is more to be expected as most “stars” generally leave to move up the political ladder. Still, in the past there were longtime representatives seen as substantial figures like Sam Rayburn or Tip O’Neill or, more recently perhaps, Dick Gephardt. Today, no one in the House even approaches this kind of standing. Perhaps the best-known congressman, Barney Frank is clever and intelligent, but often presents himself as a kind of prankster or clown. As for the governors, there were no doubt competent individuals in 2008—Mitt Romney among them—but there were few who were known nationally. The exception was Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is to this day still most widely remembered as a barbarian or a terminator.

What was (and is) true of politics on the American scene was truer of the world as a whole. Who among the active leaders qualified as a significant statesman or even a person of enormous standing, someone whom the public could name, like a Tony Blair, a Nelson Mandela, or a Mikhail Gorbachev? Instead, the video photo-ops of the world figures—displayed always against a light blue backdrop—at those innumerable summits showed in 2008 a barely recognizable Gordon Brown, conspicuous by his dourness; Nicolas Sarkozy, bounding about like a nervous ferret; and Angela Merkel (perhaps the most gifted of the group). Otherwise, it was a total blank, with no one able to name the prime minister of Japan or say who’s Hu in China. The only personages on the world stage known generally to Americans in 2008 were two obvious demagogues, Hugo Chávez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Next to all of these ordinary (or contemptible) personages appeared a new and attractive figure, unsullied by previous involvement in political activity, offering to fill this dreary void. 

A touch of charisma is a nice thing for a president to have. Harry Truman and Gerald Ford—men who made no pretense, because they could not, to possessing the “gift”—may have been disadvantaged by their lack of it, although the same could surely have been said of two great men, and credible presidents, John Adams and James Madison. In the final analysis, however, charisma sits uneasily with a republican form of government. Its very terms of belief in exceptional powers stand in tension with the idea of authority limited by law. The potential conflict is greater when flatterers convince themselves that the leader’s charisma is an asset that the nation cannot afford to lose. Obama supporters today regularly insist that his personal standing in the world is a vital element of America’s soft power and the key to altering world perceptions about America. Obama himself reportedly expressed this very position to Democratic members of Congress in the summer of 2008: “I have become a symbol [abroad] of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.” Following on this belief, the nation’s foreign policy has become hostage to the president’s charisma. Anything that sustains Obama’s image, even if it involves the president apologizing abroad for America’s sins or errors, is justified by the canons of a new understanding of realpolitik that promises to bring substantial returns. 

Obama still retains an aura of charisma abroad, though to date it has yet to bring any of the benefits that were promised. But this kind of soft-power realism hardly bespeaks a foreign policy conducted on the basis of “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” where principles are set down as markers designed to help open eyes to the rights of man. It represents instead a foreign policy based on promoting an indecent pandering to an evanescent infatuation with a single personality. 

Tonal Populism 

Populism, another modern word used to designate the popular arts, is so ambiguous a term that, other than expressing the notion of a vague popular sentiment, it has no fixed content. It can only be understood if it is broken down into two distinct types: “tonal” (or “soft”) populism and “political” (or “hard”) populism. 

Tonal populism refers to a style of politics that disdains pretension and insists on the virtue of the plain and the down-to-earth—though not necessarily the average. A person who claims tonal populism is a guy like all -others, someone you could have a beer with, or a gal like all -others, someone you could be frank with, if not go moose hunting with. Populism in this sense may once have been thought vulgar, at least from an aristocratic point of view, but America’s democratic mores virtually ensured that it would eventually win its place as an acceptable and even respectable part of our politics. Tonal populism is anti-elitist, but without any special policy message. It can mildly amuse, as when Lamar Alexander, a former college president, campaigned for governor of Tennessee and then president of the United States wearing a red and black plaid shirt. More recently, there was Scott Brown’s self-presentation in his stump speech for the Senate campaign in Massachusetts: “Friends and fellow citizens, I’m Scott Brown, I’m from Wrentham, I drive a truck and I’m asking for your vote.” Forget Wrentham and fellow citizens; it is the truck that says it all. 

It is commonly said that tonal populism originated with Andrew Jackson, who made no bones about his common origins or tastes. But this style only achieved full mainstream status when it became bipartisan during the 1840 presidential campaign, which John Quincy Adams described as marking “a revolution in the habits and manners of the people.” The Whig party, which hitherto had disdained “truckling” after votes, made the fateful decision to out-Jackson Jacksonianism. The Whigs invented the notion of the campaign as a mass spectacle by mobilizing the party faithful to hold rallies, sing songs, and enact dramatic skits in celebration of the down-home virtues of “Old Tip” (William Henry Harrison), whose simple ways were captured in the campaign’s symbols of the log cabin and hard cider. The slightest whiff of deference in American politics became a thing of the past.

Not everyone, of course, can successfully claim tonal populism, nor should they try. There are only so many country lawyers. For a politician to try to force himself into the mold of an ordinary guy when it does not fit can make him look not only phony, but ridiculous. Just ask John Kerry, who campaigned for the presidency in 2004 in a leather jacket, returning on weekends to one of his several mansions to drink green tea or go windsurfing. It never sold. Fortunately for American politics, there are other ways besides emphasizing tonal populism to rise to prominence, including demonstrating competence, achieving stature, and possessing charisma. 

If claiming tonal populism is not essential for an American political leader, it is nevertheless important not to run afoul of it and be viewed as an “elitist.” Some who employ tonal populism adopt the demagogic ploy of trying to chase from politics those who have an old family name, are wealthy (especially when the wealth is inherited), or have attained a high educational status at a prized institution. While these objective indicators of elitism can present challenges to certain aspiring political leaders, they are rarely disqualifying factors. Americans can be remarkably tolerant, even of the wealthy and the privileged. But what people cannot easily forgive is an open attitude of elitism that expresses disdain for the average person. John Edwards, who ran for the presidency in 2008 as the self-proclaimed people’s candidate, was able to survive his multimillion-dollar fortune, his huge mansion, and even his $400 haircuts; what he could never have survived was his comment, only disclosed later, that he could not stand attending state fairs where “fat rednecks try to shove food down my face. I know I’m the people’s senator, but do I have to hang out with them?”

Political analysts agree that Democrats more commonly run afoul of tonal populism than Republicans, despite the fact that Republicans suffer more often from the objective disadvantages of family name and wealth, though probably no longer of educational status. The reason is that intellectual spokesmen on the Democratic side, while proclaiming their love of the people, prove themselves congenitally unable to hide their disdain for the people’s tastes and opinions. But generalizations about the parties do not govern every individual case. Bill Clinton remains the prime example of the Democrat who, even with a Yale law degree and a Rhodes Scholarship, had no trouble claiming the mantle of tonal populism. It was not just the fact that he came from a dirt-poor background in Arkansas and a troubled family or that he spoke with a Southern accent. He was saved by his vices. Any man who was known for gobbling down two Big Macs in one sitting, who could count among his girlfriends Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones, and who had the nickname “Bubba,” was beyond all suspicion of elitism.

On the Republican side, the most interesting cases are the two Bushes, George H.W. and George W. Both of them carried the triple burden of family name, inherited wealth, and high educational status. These damaged George H.W. somewhat, especially when added to his “elite” government service as ambassador to the U.N. and to China and as director of the CIA. Ann Richards famously mocked him at the 1988 Democratic convention, in as elongated a Texas drawl as anyone had ever heard: “Poor George, he can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” Bush overcame the charge to be elected, though the old ghost came back to haunt him in 1992, when, during a visit to a supermarket, he apparently expressed astonishment at seeing a price scanner. This immediately confirmed for many that he was a man “out of touch” with the average American, a charge that struck hard during tough economic times. 

The case of George W. is more intriguing. On the scale of objective factors, W. was in a worse position than his father, as he was a son of a president and held degrees from both Yale and Harvard. But by the middle of his first term, he had been rescued from almost any taint of elitism. The smugness of his detractors, who so relentlessly attacked his supposedly lowbrow tastes and intelligence and ridiculed his evangelical faith, made it impossible for them to put any daylight between W. and middle America. They made George W. into an average American and had to live with their choice.

Barack Obama’s relation to tonal populism has been the most complicated of all the modern presidents. He made virtually no effort in the 2008 campaign to claim or establish himself as a “familiar” figure. He was able to eschew this kind of appeal because he had more compelling qualities. Not only was there his initial charisma, but also, as the campaign progressed, there was his reputation for intellectual bearing, as displayed in his Philadelphia oration on race, and his remarkable “coolness” and sobriety, as shown in his calm approach to the financial crisis that struck in September. Obama had no need to be of the people, because he was so evidently above them. Obama was, and in most ways remains today, a conspicuously nonpopulist figure in the tonal sense.

At the same time, it should have been easy for Barack Obama to escape offending the populist spirit and become a winner on all counts. Coming from a broken family without wealth or status and being from a race that has always been on the outside in American life, he should have been immune to any charge of elitism. All he had to do was live down his Harvard law degree and his position as a professor at the University of Chicago, hardly an insurmountable task for a talented politician. Yet in what must count as a clear blot on the ledger of his political skills, Obama has repeatedly blundered. His series of self-inflicted errors began with the decision during the campaign to stop wearing a flag pin on his lapel (which he later put back on) and continued with his nearly fatal comment in San Francisco about the “bitter” Midwestern workers, who “cling to guns or religion .  .  . as a way to explain their frustrations.” Hillary Clinton almost ended his campaign with the charge of elitism. Obama was reduced to pleading his case on the objective criteria: “I am amused about this notion of elitist, given that when you’re raised by a single mom, when you were on food stamps for a while when you were growing up, you went to school on scholarship.”

Since becoming president he has repeated his mistake, beginning with a gratuitous accusation against Officer James Crowley of acting “stupidly” in arresting Obama’s friend, Harvard English professor Henry Louis Gates. Following a half apology, he made matters worse by calling Crowley and Gates together to the White House for the so-called “beer summit.” In principle, there is nothing more populist in America than guys “having a beer.” And yet when the photographs of the summit were released, the only guy who looked at ease with his beer was Crowley. It remains a conspicuous fact about this administration that no one working for the president could plausibly utter an “Aw shucks” in public and get away with it. No wonder none of Obama’s aides restrained him from trying to score points by ridiculing Scott Brown’s truck. 

Tonal populism has become part of the fabric and even the fun of American politics. Still, it has a growing number of critics today, especially on the left, as Republicans have proven more adept at tapping into its spirit. These critics no longer, of course, dismiss the idea of democracy and scoff, like Coriolanus, at “the beast with many heads.” To the contrary, they profess to be the people’s truest friends, objecting only to the fact that the people do not know how to serve the people’s real interests. There is doubtless a certain merit in questioning a populism that goes too far in celebrating mere common sense. But this criticism would be entitled to far more respect if it were not being used to promote the claim to rule by a class of experts that serves a partisan end. 

Political Populism 

Obama’s distance from tonal populism led many to think that he was ill-suited for engaging in populist appeals of any kind. But whether awkward in the task or not, Obama has taken to “political” populism in a most assertive way. Political populism involves pitting one part of the community against another in order to generate energy and boost popularity. Like tonal populism, it identifies a popular “us” (“the people”) and an oligarchic “them” (the “elite” or “special interests”), but, not content merely to establish sympathies and associations, it goes on to promise important policy changes, such as punishing the biggest interests and spreading the wealth around. 

There is both a leftist and a rightist version of political populism. The left speaks of an economic power elite that is manipulating the system to its advantage, oppressing the people. The right speaks of a class of experts bent on using public authority to transform morals and run people’s lives. The left will resolve the problem by taking on Big Capital; the right by confronting Big Government. These two versions reflect parts of the genuine public philosophies of liberalism and conservatism, with the result that elements of the two populisms are apt to appear in public discourse as genuine arguments. But political populism in its full sense occurs when the populist themes become the core of the presentation, deployed to win support and boost or solidify opinion. Politicians clearly know when they are “going populist.” When the president launches an attack on a Supreme Court decision for aiding “Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans,” there is no mystery in what he is up to. Subtlety is rarely a feature of a populist appeal. 

Populism as a technique is often contrasted with a statesman-like tone, which normally aims to appeal to reason and tamp down conflict and division. Statesmanship in the highest sense is the management of affairs for the public good, which in rare cases may require an approach that divides. But the statesman only adopts this path when necessary and never for mere political gain. The usual posture of the statesman is calming and deliberate, which is what is meant by the term “presidential.” To engage in populism and parallel demagogic tricks—to blame others, to mock, to display no magnanimity toward opponents—all of these actions necessarily appear unpresidential. They are fitting for campaigns, but they make a president look smaller. 

There was no shortage of political populist rhetoric in Obama’s campaign speeches in 2008, but this element clearly took a backseat to the attraction of his person and to his grander themes. Now that his themes have dissipated into thin air and the charisma has worn off, political populism has emerged as a dominant characteristic of Obama’s leadership. But coming from a president, rather than a candidate, it appears at the wrong time and in the wrong place. 

The Presidential Office 

Modern presidents have the twin responsibilities of being a policy advocate (or party leader) and a constitutional officer. These two roles inevitably are in tension, and one of the great challenges of a president is to find the proper balance. Obama seems uninterested in locating this balance. One of the norms of being a constitutional officer is to appear as “president of all the people,” even when others may not act as if they accept him as such. Advocacy, no matter how vigorous, must respect a set of limits and be characterized by forbearance. The nation needs this understanding of the presidency to serve as a symbol of national unity—and Obama may soon need it to call on the deeper reservoirs of support in the event that conditions become far more trying than anyone today suspects.    

With his stately voice, his elegant presence, and his command of the language, Barack Obama possesses more personal tools to be presidential than any of his predecessors since Dwight D. Eisenhower, but—Bill Clinton, of course, excepted—he has shown less inclination to be so. By urging him down the path of populism, Obama’s political counselors do not seem to have the slightest clue of the damage they have done to him, because they have no conception of what the office of the presidency is all about. They coach their prince to be presidential one day and populist the next, oblivious to the fact that if presidentialism appears as a mere pose it loses all credibility. To be presidential, a president must practice presidentialism constantly, to the point that others have no choice but to view him as sincere. Obama has professed to regard George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as his models, but there is no indication that he has studied how either man conducted himself as president. They jealously guarded the dignity of the office; Obama is heedlessly frittering it away.

James W. Ceaser is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of politics at the University of Virginia.

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