Ryan Lizza has a must-read essay in The New Yorker on the challenges of presidential leadership. The first thing to note is that when Lizza began asking President Obama’s team about their vision for what they want to accomplish in a second term, they hesitated to answer. “Many White House officials were reluctant to discuss a second term; they are focused more on the campaign than on what comes after.” When pressed, Obama’s team offered a litany of hopes for a second term, including: climate control, immigration reform, and a more robust foreign aid agenda. Also mentioned are housing reform and energy reform. While these are all important, they aren’t what really ails the country. The American system of government is paralyzed. Corruption is becoming rampant on Wall Street and K Street. Our pension system is underfunded. Unemployment and underemployment are dangerously high and there are structural changes to the economy that require bold leadership.
The question raised is what leadership is and why it is so difficult in contemporary politics. Here is Lizza on one example of Obama’s unwillingness to pursue his own agenda:
In 2010, Obama negotiated a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russians and won its passage in the Senate. But, despite his promise to “immediately and aggressively” ratify the C.N.T.B.T., he never submitted it for ratification. As James Mann writes in “The Obamians,” his forthcoming book on Obama’s foreign policy, “The Obama administration crouched, unwilling to risk controversy and a Senate fight for a cause that the President, in his Prague speech, had endorsed and had promised to push quickly and vigorously.” As with climate change, Obama’s early rhetoric and idealism met the reality of Washington politics and his reluctance to confront Congress.
Lizza explores the incredible difficulties recent Presidents have faced in pursuing their agendas. One takeaway is that the idea of a presidential mandate is a myth.
•”The idea of a mandate from the people defies the intentions of the Founders and is contrary to the way that most early Presidents viewed their role.”
•”The concept of a mandate was essentially invented by Andrew Jackson, who first popularized the notion that the President “is the direct representative of the American people,” and it was later institutionalized by Woodrow Wilson, who explicitly wanted the American government to be like the more responsive parliamentary system of the United Kingdom.”
•”But the idea [of the mandate] is mostly a myth. The President and Congress are equal, and when Presidents misinterpret election results—especially in re-elections—they get into trouble.”
Lizza argues that Presidents don’t have the importance or authority that they claim and we ascribe to them. And yet, there are exceptions.
The last two presidents who successfully amassed large majorities to pass transformative legislation were Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan. What unites Johnson and Reagan—different in temperament and politics—was an uncanny quality of leadership. They were able to bring opposing sides together to accomplish grand and important visions. It is just such political leadership that we desperately need and clearly lack today.
Is such leadership possible anymore? When one looks to politics and sees that unyielding partisanship, consultant-driven talking points, and PR campaigns, one must wonder if a President can actually lead. Whether in Europe or in the US, it seems as if leaders are on strike, only acting when they absolutely have to. It is not simply a matter of lacking vision, although it is that too. More, it is that leaders are so careful and pre-packaged that politics has come to be more about marketing than about thinking and action.
Politics, Hannah Arendt argued, requires courage. It demands a risky and rare willingness to experiment and seek to bring about new directions in the world. To act politically demands doing things that are spontaneous and new; politics requires actions that are surprising and thus attract attention and generate interest, drawing people together around a common idea. Arendt’s point was that a political leader can only attract citizens to their vision when they act in ways that are surprising and noteworthy. The political leader must take the risk of leadership that can either succeed or fail. When it succeeds, the surprising and new act generates enthusiasm and followers. When it fails, the people reject it.
Leaders are those who take risks and are willing to fail. To look at Mitt Romney and President Obama is to see what happens when leaders are afraid to lose. We must now confront the fact that the need to raise money and the rise of consultants and the dominance of public relations has sapped politics of the spontaneity, thoughtfulness, and fun that can and should be at the center of political action.
How can we today resuscitate a political culture of risk-taking and leadership? How can we make the president matter again? Do Occupy Wall Street and the rise of the Pirate Parties in Europe presage a new style of political leadership? These are important questions, and will be the topics of the Hannah Arendt Center’s Fifth Annual Conference: Does the President Matter? The Arendt Center Conference will take place on Sept. 21-22, 2012 and will feature Keynotes by Ralph Nader, Bernard Kouchner, Rick Falkvinge, and Jeff Tulis. It also features talks by John and James Zogby, Todd Gitlin, Ann Norton, and many others. We hope you will join us.