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.”
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.