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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Obama’s embrace of a populist campaign style generated enough consternation that he backtracked temporarily. In a commencement address at the University of Michigan on May 1, Obama adopted a more statesmanlike posture, deploring the lack of “civility” that is “starting to creep into the center of our discourse.” “We can’t expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it.” To emphasize his impartiality, he sought to put himself above the fray, decrying the excesses “practiced by both fringes of the ideological spectrum, by the left and the right.” Yet far from calming the country, this lofty tone served only to grate on those who found in this speech a repetition of a by now all-too-familiar Obama tactic of earnestly preaching what he does not practice—a technique he has used especially in those matters in which “fairness” and “good government” are most at issue, such as the public finance of campaigns (which Obama supported before exempting himself) or the promise of post-partisanship (which he abandoned from almost his first day in office). For a statesmanlike speech such as the one Obama gave in Michigan to work, the speaker must have cultivated the “ethos” of presidentialism. Obama had long since given up on this effort. 


The “popular arts,” as that phrase was used by Hamilton, referred to the various methods of boosting public support: by dazzling (if one can); practicing an easy familiarity; promising and offering generous benefits; raising energy and anger by targeting and dividing; and blaming convenient scapegoats. Gaining approval by these methods was contrasted with winning support by achieving stature, which comes from public recognition for good service, displaying admirable qualities, or demonstrating sound judgment. Stature is manifest when a leader establishes himself “in the esteem and confidence” of a considerable portion of the people, so that public standing includes a dimension of “looking up.” 

Stature is one of the most elusive and precious qualities in political life, and it is almost always in short supply. Executives (governors) and public servants (including military leaders, such as Colin Powell or David Petraeus), who build records of service, are in a better position to acquire it than legislators, whose main activity is expressing a point of view. Being elected to the presidency usually confers an initial measure of stature, not just because running a successful campaign represents an accomplishment, but also because the office has been developed over the years to confer on its occupant dignity and distinction. But how a president acts in office affects whether he adds to or diminishes this initial stature. Slipping approval ratings may tempt presidential advisers to counsel a president to try to revive his fortunes by indulging in the popular arts, but what few of them bother to tell the boss is that approval ratings are not always measures of stature. Efforts to “bump up the positives” can often come at the cost of the president’s stature. “Fighting for you” may get a crowd worked up, but it doesn’t add to a president’s dignity. 

The practice of the popular arts is as old as democratic politics. Only the names that designate its various techniques have changed. America’s Founders were partial to expressions like “playing the favorite,” “popular leaders,” “sycophants,” and (most often) “demagogues,” a term that connected their thought back to the classical treatments of popular government in Thucydides, Aristotle, and Plutarch. The category “demagogue” includes not only lowly rabble rousers who appeal to anger and fear (Cleon or George Wallace), or those who incite envy and gin up class divisions (Gaius Gracchus or John Edwards), but also, in John Jay’s wonderful description, “those brilliant appearances of genius [who], like transient meteors, sometimes mislead as well as dazzle.” 

Charisma, one of the modern terms for the popular arts, was coined by the German sociologist Max Weber around the turn of the 20th century. The word means the “gift of grace” in its New Testament usage, but Weber defined it as “a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which one is ‘set apart’ from ordinary people and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” While Weber meant charisma to be a scientific concept, it has turned out to be anything but, and is frequently invoked today to describe celebrities in the fields of sports or entertainment. For all of its imprecision, however, charisma points to that ineffable something that allows people to know it when they see it. Barack Obama circa 2008-09 had it; Mitch McConnell never did.

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