Obama vs. his enemies
Does President Obama still think he can charm his opponents? To save his presidency, he must take them on.
President Obama’s political predicament is perhaps more serious than he understands or appreciates. He appears to see opponents as rivals to be charmed. What he should see are enemies determined to destroy his presidency. To save the agenda for which he was elected, he must give up the pretense of being a postpartisan professorial president and start acting like an Oval Office tiger.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
He must get tough, not because populist rage polls well, but because his leadership depends on challenging those who challenge him.
Republicans, big bankers, and Wall Street, and the pharmaceutical and health-insurance industries see Mr. Obama as the enemy. They gloat at his legislative setbacks. It is pointless to extend a hand to those who desperately want him to fail. There is nothing Obama can say or do to satisfy Republicans. On Jan. 30, he went to a GOP conference to enlist their support to be “partners for progress.” Does he really think Republicans want to be his partners?
In his brilliant book, “Shakespeare: The Thinker,” the late Oxford scholar A.D. Nuttall notes, “It is sometimes said that political leaders require a ‘demonised Other’ to retain control of their citizens. If the people are to be ruled they must first be scared.” Nuttall cites the example of England’s King Henry V needing a war with France to control insurrectionists at home.
Fear has its uses, then and now. George W. Bush had a colorless presidency until the 9/11 attacks. Then he acquired two enemies: Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, even though Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11.
Mr. Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney, reveled in creating more enemies to enhance the administration’s power: Muslims, Europeans, liberals, even ordinary American citizens who merely questioned the war in Iraq. This cynical strategy won Bush and Mr. Cheney four more disastrous years in office.
For several reasons, Obama can’t – or won’t – follow suit. It would be out of character for someone more scholar than brawler, more conciliator than demagogue. His decency seems to preclude demagoguery. One of his heroes is Abraham Lincoln, who assembled a “team of rivals” cabinet and who said: “I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.”
Even more salient is the fact that Obama is black and risks being seen as “uppity” and combative in a country still acclimating to its first African-American president. White congressional Republicans can savage him, but a black president can’t reciprocate.
There is a grand tradition in Washington of creating enemies for the sake of political expediency.